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Anthropologist Yvette Ruzibiza felt it was time for a different approach to how adolescents in refugee camps navigate their sexuality. Most research so far has concentrated on health-related risks and the vulnerability of adolescent refugees, particularly of girls. Ruzibiza wanted to move beyond the sole focus on sexual violence against girls, also including adolescent boys in her research, and turn the spotlight on adolescents’ perspectives on sexuality-related matters and their agency. Tuesday 20 September she will defend her PhD thesis.
(photo: Minema)

‘I wanted to move away from what is typically done when studying adolescent refugees’, explains Ruzibiza. ‘Usually, the focus is on problems related to sexuality, framing these as health-related issues like HIV and knowledge about condoms. It is often also on girls’ vulnerability and the problems of sexual violence. But maybe there are other things we overlook because of these frames, and we miss out on the agency of young refugees.’

Ethnographic research in Rwanda and Uganda

Based on ethnographic research (participant observation, focus group discussions and in-depth interviews) involving Burundian adolescents and their communities at two refugee sites in Uganda and Rwanda, Ruzibiza explored how adolescents understand, experience, and navigate sexuality in their everyday lives. The emphasis on their agency allowed her to bring to light information that would otherwise have stayed hidden.

The absence of parental care

First, she highlights how young refugees deal with the disruption of parental care in the refugee camps. ‘They often miss the care and support from their parents which influences other practices.’ Ruzibiza notes how the lack of parental authority and engagement leads to a positive experience of sexual freedom, but also to too much freedom and harmful practices, such as teenage pregnancy, abortion, and material exchanges for sex.

Clashing environments

Ruzibiza also shows how even in an enabling policy environment, the social environment may still impose restrictions on young refugees. ‘In refugee camps in Rwanda many girls get pregnant at a very young age. The views of the Burundian parents and or refugee communities in Mahama camp is that  these girls should be punished and be denied the right to continue their education. The Rwandan system, on the other hand, stresses that all adolescents should have access to education, including young pregnant girls. As a result, these girls have to handle two conflicting structures. The stigma they face contribute to them withdrawing from school’.  When developing interventions for adolescent girls, like educational programs, the support of community structures - especially that of family- should also be gained, concludes Ruzibiza.

Trying to move forward

Finally, Ruzibiza proposes to look beyond the refugee settlement as a space of ‘stuckness’. ‘We need to look at how young people use the structures of the refugee camp and migration regulations to move forward.’ She observed how young people feel forced to perform internationally recognizable forms of vulnerability, ‘since only the most vulnerable were seen as deserving to migrate onward’.  She found how young men used sexuality and visibility as homosexuals to perform heightened vulnerability, ‘thereby putting themselves in dangerous positions when homosexuality is culturally not accepted.’

Young refugees and their agency

With her study, Ruzibiza highlights the agency of young refugees that is usually disregarded. ‘I show how they use different strategies to navigate their lives.  Adolescents who felt a sense of abandonment by their community at large resolved to take care of themselves. They proved adept in exercising agency in ways that gave them the best chances of looking after themselves first when faced with a difficult situation.’

Thesis details

Yvette Ruzibiza (2022), 'Negotiating Sexuality Amidst Refugee Uncertainty: Burundian Adolescent Refugees in Mahama Camp in Rwanda and Nakivale Settlement in Uganda'. Supervisor: Prof. R. Reis, co-supervisors: Dr L.H. Berckmoes and Dr S. Neema.

Time and location defense ceremony

Tuesday 20 September, 12.00, Agnietenkapel, Amsterdam