Creating a safe haven for Rohingya women in Bangladesh

In August 2017, a military crackdown on ethnic Rohingyas in Myanmar caused more than 700 000 people to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh. Rohingya women — who make up more than half of the refugee population — continue to face daily risks and hardship within the settlements they now live in. An EU-funded programme wants to change that.

It is not safe for women, especially girls and young women, to venture out independently as they face higher risk of being harassed or attacked. © KM Asad

Today, 30-year-old Fatima* lives with her four young children in a gloomy shelter made of tarpaulins and bamboo sticks in Jamtoli refugee camp, part of a network of squalid refugee settlements in the Bangladeshi southern border district of Cox’s Bazar. As with many refugees currently taking shelter here, she fled the violence unleashed by the military against her community in August 2017.

We met Fatima at a female-friendly centre run by UNICEF with humanitarian funding from the European Union, a safe space for vulnerable female refugees like her, particularly those who have suffered physical violence.

Born in Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine state, previously home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, Fatima lived with her husband and nine children in a close-knit community. Like many of their neighbours, the family lived hand to mouth but always managed to put food on the table. As Fatima went about her everyday chores one afternoon, little did she know of the unimaginable barbarities that would unfold over the next hours.

I saw four of my children killed with my own eyes that night,she says, with tears welling up. “My husband and another son were caught while we were trying to flee. We had no other choice but to keep walking. We saw a lot of dead bodies in and along the river we passed.

After a gruelling 12-day trek through jungles and mountains with barely anything to eat, she arrived in Bangladesh desperate and desolate with her four surviving children, aged between three and nine years old.

Structural gender inequalities means life is harder for many women and girls, who make up more than half of the total refugee population (source: JRP 2018) in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. © KM Asad

After having faced the trauma of losing their loved ones, leaving their homes behind and in many cases facing physical and sexual abuse, the Rohingya women have a new struggle ahead of them in the camps. They have to survive in difficult circumstances and live in fear of violence.

In the congested camps, the lack of appropriate lighting, lockable doors, and gender-based sanitation facilities mean women and girls are unsafe, especially during the night when the chances of being assaulted increase. This is exacerbated by the presence of structural gender inequalities and social norms, which impose countless restrictions on women.

The issue here is deep rooted in the culture and we are facing many challenges. The culture does not allow women to talk freely or go out. We know there have been many more cases of gender-based violence than those that are actually reported,” says Shair Ibrahim, DanChurchAid’s gender-based violence programme officer.

Traditionally, women are responsible for a number of arduous domestic tasks, including preparing firewood for cooking. © KM Asad

The European Union, which has provided humanitarian assistance to the Rohingyas over the past 10 years, has scaled up its response since August 2017. Apart from addressing the emergency needs of both refugees and host communities, particular attention has been paid to reduce the covert risks and vulnerabilities constantly faced by the Rohingya women.

Together with UNICEF and its implementing partner DanChurchAid, the EU has supported a programme that aims to protect the most vulnerable and marginalised groups. The EU-funded initiative has helped to establish female-friendly spaces in makeshift settlements and camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Rohingya women attend a session at an EU-funded women and girls friendly space in Jamtoli camp, Cox’s Bazar. This centre is one of very few places they can talk and feel relaxed. © EU 2018 (photo by Mallika Panorat)

“Our goal is to provide them with a space where they feel safe and can receive support, a place where they can come whenever they are in distress”, adds Shair Ibrahim. “It is about protecting vulnerable women and girls.”

When I first arrived in Bangladesh, I was stressed and devastated by what I experienced back in Myanmar,” says Fatima. “But with the help of the people here at this centre, I started to feel better. We share our problems and receive great advice on how to overcome our trauma and handle a stressful situation. The sisters here help get us out of grief. It helps me a lot.

The programme ensures that persecuted Rohingya women, girls and female adolescents, have access to a safe and protective environment amidst the chaotic environment of the overcrowded camps, where most social venues are for men. These spaces, operated only by female staff and volunteers, also provide training on topics such as language skills.

We really feel peace here,” Fatima’s 40-year-old friend Begum confides. “Our shelter is very basic and the ambiance is quite stressful. We tend to get depressed if we stay at home all day. But the calm and the people here make us feel better.”

Learn more about EU Humanitarian Aid.

By Mallika Panorat, Information and Communications Assistant, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).

*Names have been modified for protection reasons.

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