A Rohingya woman in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp (Image: DFID Russell Watkins)

The largest refugee camp in the world: the plight of Rohingya women and girls

The British government today announced a new aid package to support the 70,000 Rohingya people still living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, with the money particularly targeted towards supporting vulnerable women and girls. Geographical speaks to Helen Ware, an aid worker at the camps, to find out why highlighting the plight of women and girls is so important

by Katie Burton

The plight of the Rohingya received huge attention two years ago, when close to 700,000 people crossed the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh, following waves of displacement and violence which saw homes burned to the ground. Though only brought to the attention of the wider world in 2017, their story has a long history.

In 2017, the Rohingya were the largest group of Muslims in Myanmar, mostly living in Rakhine State in the west of the country. Their presence in the region dates as far back as the 12th century but their relationship with the majority Buddhist population of Myanmar has never been easy. Violence broke out between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists following the Japanese invasion of Myanmar in 1942 and tensions worsened through the decades. The government of Myanmar has long considered the Rohingya as ‘stateless’ and refuses them citizenship.

Though the media buzz has now died down, the plight of the Rohingya goes on. Approximately 723,000 people who fled violence in Myanmar are now present in Bangladesh in what charity Concern Worldwide refers to as the ‘world’s largest refugee camp’. The Rohingya entered Bangladesh near to a region called Cox’s Bazar, once a popular holiday destination and home to the world’s longest beach. Now they reside in 34 extremely congested camps, sheltered in ramshackle bamboo and tarpaulin structures, not suited to the sometimes extreme climate.

Noor, 30, lost one of her daughters when they fled their village in Myanmar (Image: DFID Anna Dubuis)

Speaking from Bangladesh, Helen Ware, programme director with Concern Worldwide, describes the conditions in the camps. ‘One of the things that first struck me is that it is incredibly busy,’ she says. ‘There’s a huge level of overcrowding, and people live in what two years ago was essentially a forested area. Within a couple of weeks, tens of thousands of people moved over the border. It was an area never set up to accommodate this number of people.’

Work by aid organisations including Concern has improved conditions to a certain extent, with cases of severe acute malnutrition dropping — but numerous threats still remain, from nutritional problems and disease to the devastation posed by the annual monsoon rains and potential cyclones.

Alongside these universal issues, a key priority for humanitarian organisations is now the plight of women and girls in the camp. Making up more than 50 per cent of the camp population, they represent its most vulnerable members. Ware says that gender-based violence is a widespread problem and often goes underreported. A lack of gender-based services, of privacy in the home and toilet blocks, and of women-only spaces are among the main issues, with poor lighting exacerbating issues of safety and violence.

A Rohingya woman pictured at a World Food Programme food distribution (Image: DFID Anna Dubuis)

‘It gets dark here about 6:30pm, and it gets light again about 5am,’ says Ware. ‘So that’s a really long time in which you have a lot of darkness. Of course there are huge issues around safety and the concerns and fears that women have going out into the darkness.’ She adds that this increases problems women face in trying to provide food for their families. Collecting fuel and cooking adequately-sized meals (women are often caring for the children of neighbours and friends who have lost a parent) are huge problems.

Concern is being supported by the UK government, which has also made the plight of women a key priority for its aid programme in the region. The Department for International Development today announced a further £87million in support for the Rohingya in Bangladesh. International Development Minister, Baroness Sugg, said: ‘Women often suffer the consequences of conflict and crisis the most and become targets for sexual violence. Thousands of Rohingya women fleeing Myanmar for safety reasons were raped and assaulted. Unfortunately they remain vulnerable to sexual violence in the refugee camps. That is why new UK aid support will focus on protecting Rohingya women and girls so they can start to move beyond these atrocities. Not only will it increase security by making camps more well-lit at night and making housing, toilets and showers more secure, it will also support victims to report violence to authorities so crimes don’t go unnoticed and create more women-only safe spaces to provide healthcare and counselling.’

Among other things, previous rounds of UK aid have provided lighting and padlocks for shelters, sanitation infrastructure and women and child-friendly spaces where women and girls can access a range of social, health, sexual and gender-based violence support. Using these funds, Concern Worldwide has been working to integrate its nutrition service with gender-based violence referral mechanisms, targeting children and pregnant and lactating mothers. This means that when mothers visit a health centre, staff are trained in identifying potential risks or have experience of gender-based violence and know how to help. Ware says that increasing these services are essential and also notes that it’s important to encourage and support more women to attend.

British midwife Kirsty Lowe weighs a newborn baby at a health centre in Coxs Bazar (Image: DFID Russell Watkins)

‘Only 40 per cent of women are actually giving birth in a health facility,’ she explains. ‘There are many reasons for that. Some of it is around the availability of services, and some of it is more to do with the cultural and social expectations and norms that the Rohingya community hold. And so there are many reasons why some of these services aren’t being fully utilised which make it challenging for the women who are living there.’

Aside from the trauma of actually giving birth in these conditions, she also points to breastfeeding as a particular challenge for new mothers. ‘There were babies that were born on the way, during the displacement. There were babies that were born in the very early days. This is a fact of life — babies are born. And breastfeeding is something that’s quite challenging for any mother, anywhere in the world. Imagine being that mother in a refugee camp. The women themselves do not have the best health. They’re trying their best to look after their families but they can’t necessarily access a diverse range of vegetables or high-quality foods.’ Part of Concern’s work now involves training women to grow their own vegetables out of bags. The plants can grow up and around the shelters, providing them with a kitchen garden.

Hosne, 12, a Rohingya refugee girl at a UNICEF centre supported by UK aid (Image: DFID Anna Dubuis)

The new round of UK government funding is designed to continue the provision of this type of support. DFID says the funds will also enable aid workers to give more psycho-social support for women and girls and will provide women-only safe spaces for the first time, something Ware says is ‘absolutely essential and necessary’.

This necessity is unlikely to come to an end any time soon. Talks are currently underway with the government of Myanmar regarding the repatriation of the Rohingya, but international aid organisations and the government of Bangladesh are united in stating that this won’t happen unless the safety and dignity of the Rohingya can be guaranteed. Concern recently reported that the authorities in Myanmar cleared 3,540 people for repatriation (a drop in the ocean of the 70,000), but the chosen Rohingya refugees opted not to return to Rakhine State without assurances over their future.

Ultimately this is a future that remains unclear. Until the political situation is worked out, tens of thousands will spend their lives in the camps, dependent on aid for their livelihoods.

Geographical

The official magazine of the Royal Geographical Society…

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