Who are they?
The Rohingya, a stateless Indo-Aryan ethnic Muslim minority group, are from the northern part of the Rakhine state of Myanmar. They are not recognised as citizens by the governments of either Myanmar or Bangladesh. According to Human Rights Watch, ‘the Rohingya population is denied citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law. Despite traces of Rohingya history dating back to the 8th Century, Burmese law has refused to recognise this minority ethnic group as one of their national ethnic groups.’
Oppressed by the government and the local population in Myanmar, they have been fleeing to Bangladesh and other countries since the 1960s. Recently, on 25 August 2017, when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked the police and army post in the western part of Rakhine state, almost 700000 Rohingyas were evicted on the pretext of pre-planned ‘Clearance Operation’ by Myanmar Military. In an informal meeting, the UN called it ‘the textbook example of ethnic cleansing. In 2013, the United Nations identified the Rohingyas as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Now, almost 1.3 million Rohingya people are living in Bangladesh. The Rohingyas are now surviving with the financial support of various organisations around the worlds, including the United Nations.
Before 2017, the Rohingyas who came to Bangladesh was recognised as Refugee by the Government of Bangladesh. Those Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh in 2017 and after, were not given refugee status by the Bangladesh government. According to the Government of Bangladesh, they are FDMNs (Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals).
Women and Children in Conflict
In any war or conflict, women and children are the most vulnerable groups. Sexual assault is a potent weapon, a war/conflict strategy, a torture method used to wreak the opposition. The typical patriarchal attitude thinks that so-called chastity is the defining feature of womanhood. So, the nation can be hurt, weaken and vulnerable by attacking the so-called chastity of women. In this regard, the Rohingyas were no exception. Many women were tortured and raped (even gang-raped) by the Myanmar military in Clearance Operation. But after coming to Bangladesh, what is their situation now?
Cultural norms about Women
Traditionally, Rohingya women were confined to the home and were not visible in the public sphere. But after coming to Bangladesh, both men and women are restricted from moving outside the camp. Women can move inside the camp for different purposes. For example: going to relative’s houses, seeking health support, collecting ration, collecting water or goods, working as a volunteer, going to women-friendly spaces, girl-friendly spaces or adolescent-friendly spaces). But they must cover their body with a Burkha since this is a cultural norm. In such a power structure, women are the most marginalised group both in family and society. There are female-headed households, but the females in these households cannot feel empowered. According to a woman interviewed by OXFAM- ‘Not everyone is getting equal opportunities or support. Widows and separated women usually can’t leave their homes. Majhis [camp leaders] give support as they wish… They are not paying enough attention to really needy people. Those who have no money have nothing’.
I can recall that, in 2018, in a Majhi election (Majhi is the community leader from the Rohingya community elected by the community and Bangladesh Government), the UN wanted to bring women in front as the leader. But the community did not support this. Instead, they demonstrated against the UN. Because, according to their belief, a woman cannot be a leader.
The ultimate form of patriarchy is the daily companion of the camp. Blind religious belief, unawareness, lack of education, poverty, long captivity in the circle of exploitation, and patriarchal attitudes towards women have given birth to a cultural orthodoxy. Women are born to give birth, raise children, do household work, obey men, and even entertain men. Teenage girls are the most invisible generation there. I have seen first-hand how a female child becomes ‘a marriageable woman’ from the day after her first period. They have a childhood but do not have teenagerhood.
The NGOs are providing health support and awareness on various issues by WFS, GFS or AFS. And positive changes are eye-catching.
The forms of GBV (Gender-based Violence)
In the Rohingya refugee camp, NGOs and UNs are working to mitigate GBV (Gender-based violence). According to UNHCR (2003), ‘Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) refers to any act perpetrated against a person’s will and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships. It encompasses threats of violence and coercion. It can be physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual in nature and can take the form of a denial of resources or access to services. It inflicts harm on women, girls, men and boys.’ There are many forms of GBV found in a camp set-up. GBV can include sexual, physical, mental and economic harm in the public or private sphere. This can take many forms such as intimate partner violence, sexual violence, physical violence, child marriage, sex by force, trafficking and even so-called ‘honour crimes’.
Violence impacts women and men differently, even in a conflict situation. GBV may be committed in a conflict situation but also during a stable condition. GBV targets women primarily, but many boys and men also experience this. The underlying causes of GBV relate to beliefs, norms, attitudes and structures that promote and/or tolerate gender-based discrimination and unequal power relationship.
Women’s Commission (2005) and South East Migrant Health (2011) have shown a direct correlation between domestic violence and changes in men’s income-generating activities in refugee communities. Adverse changes in men’s lives, such as unemployment and alcoholism, have a much more substantial negative impact on women as they increase women’s economic burden. Thus, challenging men’s role as ‘providers’ can have an emasculating and devastating effect on both women and men. Men may then attempt to prove their ‘masculinity’ through irresponsible sexual behaviour, domestic violence or other ways (South East Migrant Health, 2011; Women’s Commission, 2005).
On the other hand, because of social and cultural norms and the fear of being stigmatised, women are unwilling to share and seek support after facing violence. According to my observation, unawareness is another reason not to share and seek help. In the Rohingya community, several forms of violence are standard, and they even do not know that these are violence and crime, and they can seek support for these incidents. NGOs and the UN are working on GBV, and there are lots of positive changes happening. Now, women want to speak and seek support facing intimate partner violence, Child marriage, trafficking, etc. Still, a significant proportion does not want to get help because of the fear of being stigmatised.
Gender-based violence in Cox’s Bazar:
Previous research has shown how refugees experience constant violence, lack of safety, and exploitation. Besides, corruption is widespread.
Pittaway (2005) found that women and girls as young as nine years old are abducted by local villagers and forced into so-called marriages, but they are returned to the camps and/or families when they get pregnant. Reports were also of young women and girls being taken and trafficked into the sex marked in nearby Cox Bazar and Chittagong. Besides, there were reports of child prostitution inside the camp.
The BBC (2018) reported how Rohingya children were trafficked to work as prostitutes in the Cox Bazar area from the refugee camps. They describe that local Bangladeshi men and women are behind this and act as the girls’ pimps. The pimps also told the BBC’s undercover team that mostly Bangladeshi men are the buyers, but some foreign men exploited the girls. The article also reveals that girls are staying with the pimps’ families when they are not used for sex. BBC also found examples of how Rohingya girls were trafficked to Chittagong and Dhaka in Bangladesh, Kathmandu in Nepal, and Kolkata in India. If there are several Army and police check-post between refugee camps to Cox’sbazar, how are these young women and girls being trafficked despite having these check-posts? Is it possible to do this day after day, evading the Army and police’s eyes?
Rohingya women are exposed to gender-based violence both from the outside and the inside of the community. Intimate partner violence has become more normal now than in the past. One report shows that most GBV, almost 81%, is perpetrated by an intimate partner. Intimate partner violence consists of sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse and denial of resources. Rohingyas think that it is a family matter solving by the family alone. Although there are several reasons, for example, social and cultural norms, patriarchal thinking, unawareness, poverty, in a refugee set-up, there are changes in the lives of men too. They do not have access to employment; they are at home or outside doing nothing. They may feel disempowered thanks to the patriarchal concept ‘Man is the breadwinner’, and they may feel powerless. They may enjoy the unequal power relation by beating wife and children. On the other hand, wives thought that this is normal if the husband’s beats.
After getting awareness session from NGOs and UNs, now their thinking patterns are changing. But still, a significant percentage of women does not want to seek support. According to them, ‘He is my husband. End of the day, I must live with him. If I seek support, I can get it. But at night? No one stays here except Rohingya. If my husband gets angry for complaining and tries to kill me, who will support me?’
Child Marriage is also a relatively common cultural phenomenon in Rohingya. They practised this in Myanmar, but they couldn’t practice this all the time because of the state law and military oppression. After coming to Bangladesh, this is a common practice, although there is a law against child marriage in Bangladesh. One research suggests that more than one-fifth of Rohingya girls aged 15–19 years are already married (Plan and GPS, 2018). It was also common in Myanmar. But it has been raised in Camp set-up. Most Rohingyas think that girls are born in this world to give birth and obey the husband. So, after getting puberty, they get busy finding a husband for the girl. On the other hand, parents do not feel safe about their adolescent girls. The shelter where they live is vulnerable, and there are many cases where the perpetrators break or cuts the shelter wall and harass girls in their own place. So, parents try to cope with the negative coping mechanism like child marriage. Even bridegroom live in other countries like Malaysia or Saudi Arab, and the marriage happens by phonecall.
The average age of marriage for the girls is 15.5 years (although there are many cases of 11 years girls being married). Another important thing is, according to cultural norms, older aged girls have fewer possibilities to find a husband. Men want to marry young. According to them, younger girls are worthy of marriage than older girls. So, in many cases, adolescent girls also want to marry for this reason.
Child brides are at risk of physical and sexual assault, intimate partner violence, child pregnancy, maternal mortality, lower education level, physical and psychological illness, denial of resources and so on. NGOs are working on it. Many people are now aware of the impact of child marriage, and they inform the NGOs when a child marriage happens.
For sexual abuse, adolescent girls are at greater risk. But when the issue of seeking support comes, less wants to talk about it. Because, in research, it has been found that the community is afraid to talk about sexual harassment. This fear is less related to the victim’s psychological impact, rather more about the consequences of the social stigma of the girl’s family; they think that it will be difficult for the victim girl to get married in the future. Sometimes, parents want to let their girl marry the perpetrator. Sorry to say, I found some CICs (Camp in charge, the employee of Bangladeshi government) also who had given solution of sexual assault or rape as marriage between victim and perpetrator.
In 2018, IRC (international rescue committee) had a project to provide lights to women and girls. Because when the women and girls went to the toilet in the evening and night, they were at greater risk for sexual assault and rape. That time, I found many women and girls who did not go toilet in the evening and the whole night. Even in a female-headed household, adult women do not feel safe. If they have adolescent girls, they are in great fear about their girls too. According to patriarchal thinking, still, chastity is the sole proponent of woman. They don’t want to talk about sexual assault or rape for fear of being stigmatised by the own community.
In Rohingya Camp, sex-working and forced to selling sex are thriving day by day. The primary consumers of this are Bangladeshi people, and these sex workers stay at camp anonymous. Rohingya sex workers meet with men of all background, from university students to local politicians. Many of the sex workers are children. Many sex workers share common reasons to come to this profession: lack of support of basic needs, poverty, abusive family members, lack of financial aid, forced to involve, trafficking. A report says that children are offered better lives by a trafficker, sometimes offered job in Cox’sbazar, Chittagong and Dhaka, then forcibly engaged in sex work. An investigation found that both offline and online, there is a vast network of traffickers (most of them are Bangladeshi) who continue to supply women and children in sex work. Here is my question again, there are several army-police checks-post between Rohingya camp to Cox’sbazar. How are these traffickers continuing their jobs day after day in front of a law enforcement agency? These women and children are at greater risk of sexually transmitted disease, physical and mental health. UN agencies say they have no figures on the numbers of sex workers in the camps. But they are trying to fix this issue.
Another critical issue is behind the scenes; adolescent boys, boys with disabilities (predominantly intellectual disabilities), persons with diverse sexual orientation and identity, and men are also at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. But a few survivors have come forward. Because they also feel fear of being stigmatised by the community. There are thousands of religious, educational places (Madrasha, Maktab) where the boys stay the whole day. There are many cases of sexual abuse in these places too. There is a deficient report of sexual assault of boys; I even doubt if there is a full report on this issue. But the NGOs and UNs should be more aware of this issue and should work on it.
Conclusion (is there really a conclusion?)
According to my two years of experience working in the Rohingya camp, I had tried to observe the GBV situation in the Camp set-up. The strong social and cultural norms rooted in their culture are a common reason for gender-based violence. But in a camp set-up, some other reasons can be added to fuel in GBV. Bangladesh Government didn’t give refugee status to a significant percentage of Rohingya. These Rohingya don’t get any support that a refugee should get from a government of a country according to international law; they are not allowed to work to earn money, children have no rights to get a formal education, they don’t have permission to go outside of camps (except to obtain some medical and legal support); these are also important reasons of GBV. The international and national NGOs, including UNs trying to make a sustainable system for them. The government of Bangladesh should think about it and make this community a human resource. Otherwise, there will never be a solution and never be a conclusion of this discussion.
Image Information: Rena, 18, sits in a mud hut with doors and windows closed as she tells her story of working as a prostitute in Kutupalong, Bangladesh on 15 October 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stefanie Glinski
Fahmi Ela is a feminist activist, writer and human rights worker. She worked with Rohingya refugees for two years. Published book: Maiyaphoar Kohon, story book in Bangla.