Shammi Syera Simin
Lucky enough are 1.3 million of people (as of 31 December 2019, according to UNHCR) who took refuge in Rohingya camps of Bangladesh, and lucky enough are the 6.63 lakhs of them to be part of those camps’ female population, because now they will have to cope with the abuse stateless people get treated with from the locals, along with being oppressed by the whole of society thanks to their gender.
What a great time to be alive!
Gender-based violence (GBV) is a significant risk and everyday reality for Rohingya women and girls displaced in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Women and girls face challenges in securing their safety, accessing information and services, and negotiating decision-making. Restrictions on movement, cultural and social norms, low literacy and numeracy, as well as reduced community and legal protections increase women and girls’ exposure to GBV.
Because the Myanmar government had systematically deprived the Rohingya of basic rights for decades, imposing limitations on the right to marry, bear children, vote or participate in civic life, obtain education, freely travel, and access justice mechanisms, there are historical, social, and political contexts of maternal mortality among Rohingya refugees. However, when this group of stateless population clutched onto Bangladeshi soil to get another chance at life, someone should have told them that they are not getting some form of justice any time soon.
The current camp situation in combination with their experiences in Myanmar contribute to increased vulnerability to GBV.
Below are some collected case studies. The information reported here was gathered through both focus group discussions with women and individual interviews with survivors of violence. Such information-gathering exercises are conducted on a regular basis to inform the development of the DCA (DanChurchAid) programme; the data was not collected purely for research purposes.
Case 1: Sexual Assault
Fatema (pseudonym) is a 30-year-old Rohingya refugee woman. She came to seek refuge in Bangladesh in August 2017 and has been living in the camps for the last 20 months. Like many other Rohingya refugees, she has witnessed gruesome violence perpetrated against her loved ones. Also, like many other women and girls who fled from their home country to seek refuge, she has been a survivor of GBV herself. Even though these incidents affected her greatly, she agreed to share her story with the world as a way of encouraging other GBV survivors to give hope and motivate others that through support from family and community recovery is possible.
When the attacks against the Rohingyas began in Myanmar, Fatema’s husband was abducted by the armed forces and she could not trace him anywhere. As the situation grew more fearful, she decided to flee the country for the safety of herself and her two children. The only way to reach Bangladesh safely was to cross the border river using a boat made of plastic bottles. This was the common way by which many refugees crossed. On her way, not only did she witness people from her community being killed in front of her, dead bodies lying on the ground near her home and people floating on the river, but she also lost her young son.
The loss of such a young child left her unable to move. But the thought of her other child being taken to safety gave her the strength to continue her journey. It took them two weeks to reach Bangladesh. As she arrived, she lost the child in the crowd. She spent hours looking for her child and came across a driver who offered to help her. The driver took her into his vehicle and after driving for a while, three other men got into the vehicle. These men and the driver took the woman to a place far away where not a single person could be seen. Fatema understood what was going to happen to her and started to beg them to release her. But her plea did not have any effect on them. The men took turns and raped her several times inside the vehicle. They showed no mercy, took her jewellery and left her there.
Even though she was bleeding severely, she was unable to sense the pain. Her body was psychologically numbed to the physical pain. The only thought that kept her in her senses was to find her child at any cost. She could barely move, so she kept praying and begging to God to reunite her with her lost child. This spiritual connection gave her the strength to remain conscious. Eventually, some other refugees came across her and took her to safety. She got a shelter of her own, but remained extremely distressed. She felt unable to travel in any kind of vehicle and had a hard time trusting anyone.
Fatema, like many GBV survivors, had a variety of psychosocial needs. If these are considered within the framework of the MHPSS intervention pyramid (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2007), her status as a single woman within the camp left her particularly vulnerable in terms of meeting her basic needs (food, shelter, medical care) in ways which did not expose her to further risk of harm. A number of agencies were responsible for providing these services and DCA advocated with them to ensure that Fatema was able to access them safely.
Fatema was not only isolated, but was finding it difficult to build relationships due to the emotional and psychological effects of her experiences.
Case 2: Psychological Violence
This case study describes a situation in which both sexual and psychological violence occurred. Nuri (pseudonym), a 21-year-old woman, used to live with her big family of 17 in Myanmar. When many Muslims all over the world were celebrating one of their biggest festivals, Eid-Ul-Adha, the Rohingya people of Rakhine state were praying for their lives.
Just after the festival, Nuri and her family started to hear gunshots. As the armed groups started to approach their homes, they turned the lights off to hide. They passed the night in terror. When dawn came, her brother went out to pray in the local mosque. He was captured outside the house on his way to the mosque. His hands were chopped off and later his throat was slit. The whole family witnessed the event and cried in silence. The story of the incident spread and the people of the village started to flee. Nuri’s family did the same. They first spent two days hiding in the jungle and later took shelter in a relative’s house. Soon the armed group arrived at this house and started to call people out of the house. The group threatened to burn the house down if anyone remained inside the house. The owner of the house was forced to bring people out of the house. As people came out, the attackers started to separate men and women. They tied all the men by their hands and feet. This was the last time Nuri saw her husband alive. She is unable to recall fully the events of the night, including exactly how her husband was killed; this form of disrupted memory is not unusual following extremely distressing events (Loftus, 1993). Her mind chose to block this traumatic memory.
Right after these women witnessed the murders of their loved ones, the attackers snatched their jewellery. In the name of searching, the group of men started to touch the women inappropriately. Nuri, the mother of a small baby and pregnant with another child, lost the ability to think. She thought that dying would be better for her. She felt lonely and afraid. She gave up the hope of seeing another day. But the face of her baby gave her the strength to stand up and get to safety. The thought of taking her baby, her unborn child and herself to safety gave her the determination to continue her journey to Bangladesh.
She found safety for herself and her children in Bangladesh, but did not find the peace that she was seeking. She had started to come to the DCA WGSS regularly, but men of the community did not approve of her moving around the camp on her own, especially for a widow who had no male family member to accompany her. They started following her, harassing her and did not miss an opportunity to discourage her from coming to the WGSS. They threatened her to ban her from the community if she kept moving around without a burqa and umbrella. All of these incidents—the loss of her husband, concern about the wellbeing of her new-born baby and the health of her other child, adapting to a new environment and the general safety concerns in the camp—accumulated, increasing her stress. She started to feel more and more disturbed every day. She started to use prayer and visiting other relatives as coping mechanisms, but always felt there was something holding her back. She came to the conclusion that the inability to share her “thousands of thoughts and sorrows” with someone had started to affect her mental health.
The Rohingya population is distinct from other displaced populations due to their oppression before their 2017 displacement, which included being denied citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law. Reports of mass killing were extremely disturbing (Human Rights Watch, 2013). My observation is that their history and recent experiences in Myanmar have reduced their trust in authorities and systems and they continue to find it difficult to trust those who provide services in the camp.
This is especially true of GBV survivors, since GBV was not an issue which was acknowledged or discussed among the Rohingya population in Myanmar, and there is still considerable stigma associated with the experience. This applies to those who experienced GBV in Myanmar, those who were abused during their flight and those who experience harassment and abuse within the camp.
The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.
This piece was created in collaboration with BRAC-CGSRHR, BLAST, and CREA under the project “Strengthening the voices and capacities for gender based violence”.