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The poster stopped me cold: On the wall of a migrant shelter in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico a couple of years ago, I found instructions for female migrants on how to obtain pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV – drugs they could take to keep from getting AIDS if they were raped. The unacknowledged truth in that poster was that they almost certainly would be sexually assaulted (by criminals who prey on migrants they know can’t approach the police, and sometimes by the very coyotes they are paying to escort them) as they made their way through Central America and Mexico to try to enter the United States.
I’m Stephanie Nolen, The Globe’s Latin America correspondent. Much of my work over the past few years has focused on migration: I’ve written about the desperate Salvadorans fleeing violence, the Venezuelans driven across borders by hunger, the people from around the world who come here to Mexico, where I am now based, trying to make it across the much-discussed border with their hopes pinned on a new life in the United States or Canada.
In recent months, I’ve been following caravans of migrants travelling from Honduras and Guatemala, and if you wondered why they’ve banded together on the trip, that “how to keep from getting AIDS” poster likely answers your question. I already knew from talking to migrants in El Salvador and Honduras that many women got Depo-Provera shots before they left home to prevent pregnancies from assaults. But the idea that helpful advice to female migrants extended to how they could keep from getting HIV when inevitably raped – that was a new level of grim.
I’ve been thinking about why people migrate, and the power structures that keep some people safe and make others so vulnerable. (I’m a migrant myself, of course, having spent the best part of the last 25 years outside Canada, although since I’m white and middle class, I get called “expat” not “migrant”). Migration is a global story, and it’s a women’s story. Plenty of the migrants in the caravans are young men hoping for a better chance to earn a living in the United States. But there are also a great many women, and they usually have children – a baby in a rickety stroller and another they tug along with a sweaty hand. They are fleeing domestic violence (something the U.S. no longer recognizes as a basis for asylum), sexual slavery and impossible lives as single mothers in dangerous places.
Much of the focus in the past year has been on the U.S. border and the separation of parents and children (which my colleague Tamsin McMahon in our California bureau has been following). But many of the people I interview have Canada as their ultimate destination: They are hazy on the geography of how they will actually get there once they cross into Texas or California, but they have an idea that it will be a less hostile, less racist place. They also tend to know little about the immigration process – something, I’m learning, that is true of most Americans and Canadians as well. ProPublica put together this excellent interactive showing what the asylum process is really like. Short version: it’s incredibly long, tedious and uncertain, and your chances of success are getting lower all the time.
It’s a bleak topic to be covering, most days; I drew a shred of comfort in this California Sunday story about an underground network of women organizing in the United States to try to keep migrant women safe. And I appreciated this piece by Cindy Carcamo of the Los Angeles Times, which told the story of a battered notebook in Tijuana that lists the names of hundreds of migrants – a system to try to bring a little order to the chaos. I spent some time with the notebook-keeper myself, late last year, as she marshalled a Cameroonian woman who fled the civil war, a Mexican woman running from the narcos who killed her husband, and a Salvadoran woman who was waiting with her two toddlers, hoping that maybe having them with her would increase the chances the U.S. government would let her cross the bridge in whose shadow we stood.
Migration, ultimately, is about vulnerability – what drives you from home, and what threatens you along the way. So often the process seems to hold particular horrors for women; always, the women I meet on the path are pushing forward drawing on extraordinary wells of strength and determination.
What else we’re reading:
My relief from my day job is novels – yet some of the ones I’ve liked best in recent years are on themes of migration and exile. I have now given about a dozen friends copies of Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, about a Cameroonian couple whose ambitions for the American dream are thwarted by, of all things, the Lehman Brothers collapse. The brilliant Sisonke Msimang, who became a good friend in my years in South Africa, recently published the powerful memoir Always Another Country that looks at all the ways we think about belonging. And right now I’m alternating each night between Ana Castillo’s The Guardians, about undocumented Mexicans in the United States, and Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, about how the women of a Mennonite community in Bolivia organize to respond to systemic rape by their community members.
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