Women and girls have always been amongst the worst victims of all forms of violence. Their continuing plight in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh is highlighted in this stark blog by Kathy Win, based on her fieldwork in Cox’s Bazaar and Rakhine State.
Rohingya women and girls are amongst the most affected victims of the genocide in Myanmar, and face even greater hardship and vulnerabilities in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh are home to around 943,529 refugees who fled genocidal violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2017.
Most Rohingya women and girls in the camps are either survivors of, or witnesses to, gender-based violence in Myanmar. In Cox’s Bazaar, they face multiple challenges such as insecurity, violence, and extremely limited freedom of movement. Their lives and freedoms are heavily constrained by the control that their communities have over their social lives, especially regarding marriage and education. In such a scenario, and alongside the lack of decent work, poor living conditions, insecurity and inadequate education opportunities, child marriages and polygamy have increased markedly. Sadly, such vulnerable women and girls are targeted by human traffickers and smugglers to leave the camps for neighbouring countries, especially Malaysia and Thailand. Desperate to escape, they think that marrying a Rohingya man from a neighbouring country is the only option to escape their persecutions.
Drivers of Forced Migration
Women often experience threats and harassment if they are educated, or speak for women’s rights in the camps. Security issues and cultural obstacles (it is common for parents to stop adolescent daughters from going to school) mean that girls have very limited access to schooling, and women have low levels of literacy and Burmese language skills. In Bangladesh, authorities have restricted humanitarian agencies from the construction of a functioning education system at Cox’s Bazaar, instead providing irregular informal education with very limited resources. Authorities justify this stance by insisting that the Rohingya refugees will return home to Myanmar one day.
To fill the gap in the meantime, the Rohingya find alternative ways of providing their children with education — such as private tuition and Rohingya volunteers-led learning centres. But in December 2021, the Bangladesh authorities decided to shut down Rohingya-led learning centres and home-based schools in the camps, giving the excuse that such camp-based schools were illegal and did not have official permission to operate. Although women are seeking to mitigate restrictions on accessing education by operating small home-based classes at their shelters, most of them often face threats from criminal gangs who are against education for adolescent girls.
A 26-year-old Rohingya volunteer teacher experienced these issues first hand when she taught in Cox’s Bazaar:
We were really concerned about security and safety as they [ARSA — the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army] became more active in the camps. We heard violence and killings almost every day due to power competition between rival gangs. They threaten women who want to seek divorce and who are active in supporting women’s rights. In 2019 and 2020, I taught the Burmese curriculum to women aged between 10 and 40 who wanted to learn the Myanmar language. It is very important for us to understand, to read, speak and write for our repatriation and to integrate with the Rakhine and Burmese community. ARSA supporters threatened and threw stones while I was teaching. Later I had to shut down the class because women and girls who came to my evening classes were no longer safe.
Threats from the Militia
All the 34 extremely congested camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf upazila of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh have become hubs of organised crime of Rohingya militant groups like the ARSA and other criminal gangs. These groups control everything from drug trafficking to extortion, and ensure the lack of properly compliant mechanisms in camps. Since 2019, ARSA has been trying to strengthen its influence and control in the camps, and competition among rival gangs has resulted in deadly violence and killing that often targets women and girls or those who try to defend them. In September 2021, ARSA shockingly assassinated the prominent Rohingya leader Mohid Ullah who spoke out against the activities of ARSA including rape, torture, drug trafficking and kidnappings inside the camp.
Over the past five years, Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazaar have faced terrible conditions in overcrowded camps. Arson attacks, killings, and kidnapping have become commonplace. Women are intimidated into quitting jobs (mostly with NGOs) by groups saying women working outside homes is against Islamic principles. According to a refugee in Balukali camp, ARSA also issued a series of fatwas (religious decrees) to control and restrict women and girls from accessing work outside their homes, and demanding that they obey their husbands, and wear burqas. According to Human Rights Watch, in April 2019 ARSA forced 150 women to quit their teaching jobs in learning centres run by one NGO in the one of the camps.
The majority of Rohingya women and girls have experienced Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and sexual abuse from their husbands, family members, neighbours as well as members of criminal gangs. The violence includes rape, forced marriage, physical/mental abuse and threats. Data collected by the International Rescue Committee in 19 camps across Cox’s Bazaar revealed that 81 per cent of GBV in the Rohingya camps is perpetrated by intimate partners, while 56 per cent of incidents are of physical violence. Rohingya women from Kutupalong refugee camp said that religious leaders who are close to ARSA leaders inside the camp often preach not to allow women to work outside, blame fathers who allowed their daughters to study or work with NGOs and threaten women who file for divorce. Conservative groups of youth and men now police women in their decision-making, enforcing the wearing of burqas at all times and questioning women’s presence in public and work spaces, further reducing the mobility of women and girls.
Rohingya women have also experienced sexual and physical violence outside their camps/shelters and or on the road to camp clinics if they went out alone. Although NGO-led protection centres are available to complain about such issues, women lack confidence to share their experiences at the centres, unable to leave their shelters alone and often face administrative delay at these protection centres. Due to lack of protection of women and girls, many Rohingya women suffer psychological problems like depression, anxiety, stress and fear. Local NGOs provide psycho-social counselling inside the camp but most women are afraid to access them because their husbands do not allow them or are concerned that they might face attacks by the criminal gangs on the way. The most affected are single women and widows.
I have been beaten two times by Rohingya men with umbrellas while I am going to my workplace. Most of the time I feel afraid to go outside alone. Domestic violence also not a new issue here. Rohingya men assume that they need to show themselves to be manly by controlling their wife and beating them if the wife fails to fulfil the domestic task or fails to fulfil their will. The protection mechanism is not functioning well.
A 25-year-old NGO volunteer also said:
Last year, ARSA members destroyed a counselling centre near my camp. They said women are going to the centre to meet with foreigners and it is breaking Islamic principles as women are not allowed to meet and talk to strangers.
Some Rohingya women-led groups provide awareness on GBV, domestic violence and trafficking but most of them have limited resources and often face threats from ARSA and other criminal gangs.
The Rohingya say that worsening security and lack of protection in Cox’s Bazaar are key reasons why thousands of refugees have decided to relocate to Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal prone to natural weather disasters, or have fled to neighbouring countries (India, Thailand and Malaysia) by taking perilous sea journeys via a network of brokers.
Women especially do not want to live in camps as they face a lot of challenges to survive. They have no protection from family, community and host community. The majority of women have only two choices for survival: to marry for protection or to escape the camps.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar under the 1982 Citizenship Law, and the government considers them ‘illegal’ immigrants from Bangladesh, leaving them unable to choose safe and regular migration routes. Since the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, tens of thousands of Rohingya, especially women, girls and children have been arrested by the Myanmar military not only in Rakhine state but also in other parts of Myanmar. Local authorities arrest Rohingya on charges of travelling without legal documents and sentence those arrestees to prison for up to 5 years. In addition, families often face extortion and threats from brokers, women face food and water shortages, ill-health, physical violence and rape by security forces, ethnic armed groups and brokers during the journeys, as well as injury and death.
Rohingya women and girls are the most affected victims of the genocide in Myanmar, and they face even greater hardship and vulnerabilities in refugees camps in Bangladesh.
To address the challenges of Rohingya women and girls, host governments and humanitarian agencies must:
- Allocate funds for services and legal remedies such as sufficient and accessible psycho-social support and medical treatment and legal protections for victims of domestic violence and sexual harassment;
- Raise awareness of domestic violence, sexual harassment, risks of human smuggling and trafficking to both Rohingya women and men;
- Create safe environments for access to education, and create decent work opportunbities for Rohingya women;
- Put pressure on Myanmar military junta to stop the arrests of Rohingya victims of human trafficking;
- Provide technical support and capacities for Rohingya women’s rights activists to enhance refugees-led protection mechanisms.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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Banner image © Ashraful Pranto, ‘Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh’, 16 June 2020, Unsplash.