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Precarious hope and reframing risk behavior from the ground up: insight from ethnographic research with Rwandan urban refugees in Yaoundé, Cameroon



Theoretical and methodological research on risk-taking practices often frames risk as an individual choice. While risk does occur at individual level, it is determined by aspirations which are connected to others and society. For many displaced women globally, these aspirations are often linked to the well-being of their children and other household members. This article explores the links between aspirations for the future, gendered household dynamics, and health risk-taking behavior among the Rwandan urban refugee community.


This analysis drew from participant observation, focus group discussions, and in-depth interviews with 49 male and 42 female household members from 36 Rwandan refugee households in Yaoundé, Cameroon. The fieldwork was conducted over 12 months between May-August 2016, May-August 2017, and February-August 2018.


We observed that while there was considerable convergence among household members in aspirations, there was considerable difference in risk-taking practices engaged to achieve them with women often assuming the greatest risks. These gendered realities of risk were not only related to structural concerns including access to different forms of capital, but also to socio-cultural gendered expectations of women, how risks were defined and justified, and household dynamics that drove the gendered reality of observed risk-behavior.


Humanitarian programs and policies are distinctly finite in nature; focused on the short-term needs of persons affected by conflict. However, many humanitarian situations in the world are protracted. In the midst of these challenges, themes of future-orientation, possibilities, and shared aspirations for a better future emerge. These aspirations and the practices, including risk-taking practices that stem from them are central to understand if we are to ensure a just peace and stability in displaced communities throughout the developing world. Our analysis highlights the need to examine sociocultural dimensions related to hopes for the future, gender, and household dynamics as a way to understand risk behavior. We propose this can be done through a framework of precarious hope which we put forward in this paper, in which hope, agency, sociocultural and political economic contexts situate risk as a gendered practice of hope amidst constraint.

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