Rohingya refugee camps most unsafe for women


December 2, 2021

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This is an opinion piece by Parvez Uddin Chowdhury, a humanitarian worker and independent researcher published on the Daily Prothom Alo on 1st December 2021.

Have you ever wondered what happens to women and girls when a society or community is forcibly displaced and becomes refugees in another country? We all know about the kind of horrific and disturbing atrocities Rohingya people experienced in 2017 and the way they were made to flee their homes in Myanmar. The Rohingya crisis is more than four years old now. It has often been on world news over the years. I have been working in refugee camps for over three years and have experience of directly working with refugee women, girls and children. I have seen and felt the life of helpless Rohingya women, girls and children living with growing violence, abuse and exploitation in the camps.

In such humanitarian situations, women and children become the most vulnerable. Early marriage, sexual violence and exploitation are often understandably inescapable for many coercive circumstantial factors. In the camps, as a matter of fact, early marriage and polygamy are some common cultural practices among the Rohingya people. Sexual and gender based violence is also reported to be soaring. According to a report by UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), insecurity, increased risks of sexual and gender based violence, breakdown of rule of law and state authority, lack of access to education, the stigma of pregnancy outside marriage, increased poverty are some factors that contribute to the early or forced marriage. The Rohingya predicament is no exception to this.

To most women and girls in the Rohingya camps, having one abusive husband seems better than being abused by many other men

Undoubtedly, spread of education and eradication of poverty are the most effective approaches to empower women and hence reduce early marriage in a society. In a lower and upper middle class family in our society, early marriage is pretty unthinkable. It is certainly not because there is a law preventing it but the education, awareness, progressive economic and career goals that they have envisioned. But Rohingya people have no such opportunities to pursue a progressive life. They live in a setting that coerces them to feel insecure and marry earlier.

Rohingya people have been deprived of their basic rights including education in Myanmar for decades. Now, for the last four years, they have been living miserably in shacks in the camps where violence has been a daily experience, increasingly making them more despondent. There is no strong social protection and formal justice systems, no formal education, no state authority over their head and no solution of their crisis seems ahead. As a result, after long four years, a kind of desperate feeling that anywhere is better than here is growing among them.

Given the limited in-house space and flimsy tents they live in, it is hardly possible to provide separate space for the teenagers and to ensure their privacy. Most shanties are overcrowded. So to the refugees, marriage often looks like something where there is nothing else to be done.

There are thousands of broken, separated, vulnerable women-headed families struggling to survive and feed their children. A number of women are there who were married, had babies and then were carelessly deserted by their husbands. Marriages don’t last long, often stuck in negligence and abuse by husbands and finally end up in separation.

The Rohingya society is highly patriarchal where women empowerment is not encouraged. In many cases, Rohingya men take advantage of women and girl’s powerlessness and helplessness. Life has been so insecure for women and girls in the camps that they sometimes find no choice but to marry someone for simply for security’s sake, even after knowing that the would-be husband already has other wives. Women dare not to speak up against the abuse, in fear that it might lead to further insecurity and violence. To most women and girls in the Rohingya camps, having one abusive husband seems better than being abused by many other men.

In last August, an in-depth report by The New Humanitarian, a Geneva-based independent, nonprofit news agency, reveals that Rohingya women are “being harassed, kidnapped, attacked or extorted by men affiliated with Rohingya militant groups and gangs”. The report quoted a woman saying that “this is happening everywhere, but nobody is talking about it”. It also notes that Rohingya militant groups and criminal gangs compete for control in the camps. They marry or sexually abuse whoever woman and girl they like and leave as they wish.

In late September 2021, Mohib Ullah, a prominent non-violent Rohingya civilian leader was shot dead by a group of Rohingya gunmen at his office in the camps. On 22 October, seven Rohingyas were also killed by an armed group at a madrasa in one of the camps in Balukhali. ARSA, a Rohingya militant group, is alleged to be behind the killing. With this recent deadly violence, the ordinary Rohingyas are feeling more apprehensive and helpless.

Many say there are aid workers, security forces and other officials in the camps in the day-time but at night, the camps are under the control of what they call the “Pahari groups” (the gangs operating from hills nearby). Drug trafficking and taking innocent Rohingyas hostage have been their big business. Abusing women and girls appears to have turned into their addiction.

Working with the refugees in the camps, many researchers and aid workers like me have concluded that most Rohingya people are helpless, peace-loving and want to go back home. They are ashamed of, and highly worried about, the rise of the violent gangs among them. We cannot allow all the refugees to suffer just for some evil elements, especially the innocent women, girls and children.

The armed gangs’ unbridled quest for more control and for taking advantage of the helpless Rohingya women and girls should be stopped. We should not forget that these people left their homes back in Myanmar and came here only for their safety and security. Their safety in the camps should not be further risked and ignored. In the recent months, security forces and posts have been increased in the camps, yet even more sincere efforts should be invested to ensure that the real culprits are brought to justice, to consolidate the safety of the innocent refugees and security of the country.

Source: The Daily Prothom Alo (English version)

Featured photo: Three Rohingya women cry after their mother went missing at Palangkhali area of Ukhia, Cox’s Bazaar

Photography by: Saiful Islam