Hidden teens on the Thai-Burma border

Local activists take great risks to improve the sexual health of refugee youth

By Lynn Harris

Published June 17, 2009 5:18PM (EDT)

Now for a small peek at a faraway, often forgotten corner of the world, the teenagers who've fled there from conflict and oppression in their homeland, and the people endeavoring to help them find their way. The Thai-Burma border and environs are home to over 1 million Burmese refugees, many of whom eke out a dreary, even dangerous living as illegal migrant workers. Undocumented refugees and migrants there have limited access to, well, everything -- including, of course, healthcare. Teenagers (and women) there are especially vulnerable, with deaths from abortion and childbirth common, and resources scarce. Those family planning and HIV prevention programs that are available often focus on adults or women who already have children, according to the local grass-roots Adolescent Reproductive Health Network (ARHN). Even health services in refugee camps remain out of reach "due to cultural traditions and perceived inaccessibility." A report released yesterday by ARHN both illustrates how bad things are -- and offers a wisp of hope for future help.

The report, which surveyed nearly 400 migrant teenagers, found high awareness of contraceptives -- thanks in part to education by ARHN member organizations -- but low use. More than half of adolescent boys (and almost one-third of girls), according to the report, "strongly agreed that female partners sometimes deserve beatings"; a majority also said they find it acceptable for husbands to restrict wives' access to family planning.

Grim -- and helpful to local advocates continuing to focus their efforts -- but probably not surprising. What is surprising, ARHN advisor Cari Sietstra told Broadsheet, "is that the report was fielded at all. Highly mobile, young, undocumented migrants moving into and out of conflict zones are almost impossible for NGOs to access or survey. The migrant activists in ARHN have done something really incredible in getting together this research -- going into safe houses and factories, evading police checkpoints, visiting hidden, illegal migrant schools to interview almost 400 adolescents about their sexual health knowledge and practices," she says.

"ARHN's report also speaks to the great good that can come out of partnerships between American reproductive health activists and undocumented activists in or near conflict zones. Americans could never sneak into factories or farms to interview people, or speak the obscure ethnic languages that migrant teens understand. On the other hand, migrant activists generally aren't fluent in English and don't have the educational background to create statistics and charts. Nor do undocumented activists from isolated conflict zones have the connections to reach out to potential funders and publications to share the knowledge they've gathered. But together ARHN and its American supporters have not only published important new information about a group that is almost entirely invisible and unstudied but also have successfully raised funds, built a new youth center, and brought skilled trainers and teachers to help migrant peer trainers develop their own knowledge base to teach adolescents about sexual health to improve their lives."

For more about AHRN and other relief efforts along the border, click here

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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