Damdy did exceptionally well in school until tenth grade when she became interested in boys. She was fighting a lot with her mother, who did not want her to date anyone. However, the mother was spending all her time trying to make enough money for the family and worked two shifts. Damdy would put her younger brothers to bed and then sneak out to join her Puerto Rican American boyfriend.
This pattern continued for some time until her mother learned what was happening. They had a fight and her mother threw her out of the house. Damdy then called me from a pay phone on a street near her boyfriend's house in the Mission district. It was 11.30 pm in California, but 3.30 am on the East Coast where I lived. She asked my husband and me if she could live with us. We agreed but requested that she get permission from her mother first. Damdy said she had no intention of ever speaking to her mother again and would try to move into her boyfriend's house.
A few days later, she called and said that she had temporarily moved into a girlfriend's house. She was no longer speaking to her boyfriend, although would visit his father and brothers who had also befriended her.
Damdy then asked me what I thought about premarital sex and said that she had had several boyfriends already. 'Do they use condoms?' I asked. 'No, not those disgusting things,' she replied. I asked her if she worried about AIDS and she told me that she could not get AIDS because she did not go out with gay men. When I tried to point out the risks, she replied, 'I don't worry about that.' A few months later, she called to tell me about a new 'steady boyfriend'.
These stories illustrate the diverse sexual risks that refugee women face. The diversity of refugee women's experiences preclude any universal prescription for HIV/AIDS control and prevention. The category of refugee itself ignores the diversity of experiences which women as refugees face. Such experiences are patterned by the woman's community of origin, the particular set of experiences of flight and uprooting, the sexual practices and traditions of the host and/or asylum communities, and individual attributes, including age, education, personality, etc.
Yet, there are certain commonalities which refugee women face which makes the category of refugee meaningful. Most refugee women do not enjoy the protection of a state, have less legal recourse than women who are not refugees, and can be threatened with state-sanctioned violence. Refugee women face similar situations to women trapped in domestic violence who may not be able to practise safe sex without some personal risk. For both victims of domestic and state-sanctioned violence, notions of empowerment are meaningless without fundamental changes in the political economic power structure and guarantees of safety.
While the category of refugee conveys a broad range of experiences and situations, the commonality is the absence of safety--both physical and psychological--that many refugee women face in their daily lives. This lack of control