Solar lamps, alternative fuel, feminine hygiene products—relief that counts in the practical needs of Rohingya women refugees
Date: Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Author: Arup Barua
Mahmuda Begum, 23, lives in a makeshift settlement at the Moynerghona, Balukhali camp, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. She arrived recently with a newborn baby she had delivered, without any medical assistance, just before crossing the border of Myanmar. She is among the estimated 688,000 new arrivals of Rohingya refugees to Cox’s Bazar , and has had a harrowing journey.
“Being eight months pregnant, I had to endure inhumane suffering while we were fleeing from our home,” she said. “My family spent five to six days under the open sky, and had to cross hills and forests. Thousands of other women also went through similar tribulations. We had no option but to keep moving forward to find a shelter. I crossed the border for the sake of my baby.”
In September 2017, Mahmuda gave birth to a baby boy, and urgently needed clothes, medicines and hygiene products and facilities for herself and the newborn child—items that are not typically found in relief kits.
Since the influx of Rohingya refugees started, many humanitarian agencies have been trying their best to distribute essential relief items such as soaps, clothes, scarves, menstrual hygiene products and flashlights to women, packaged together into what is called a “dignity kit”. However, because of the sheer number of incoming refugees, the unmet demand for dignity kits was immense.
“Camps are overcrowded, needs are immediate and enormous, and resources are stretched…”
Through the months of December and January, UN Women, in partnership with the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MoWCA) and ActionAid Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazar, distributed dignity kits to 7,893 households, specifically targeting female-headed households, pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls and women and girls with special needs.
“I am feeling more comfortable about taking care of myself and my baby with these items and with the information I received on how to use them,” said Mahmuda.
Bangladesh has been hosting Rohingya refugees from Myanmar for nearly three decades now. Recently, however, the escalating violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, has displaced some 688,000 Rohingyas since August 2017, and just over half of them are women and girls. The Rohingya refugees arrive with very few possessions, impoverished and traumatized.
In the camps, there are many other challenges affecting women more than men, for example, poor lighting.
Rubina, 16, who fled from escalating violence against the Rohingya people in Barinkathi, Rakhine State, Myanmar, and was separated from her parents while crossing the Naf river, has found the solar lamp in her dignity kit very useful.
She said: “After dark, women and girls are often afraid to go outside of their tents, even to access a toilet or to get water from the tube well. Sometimes we cannot complete our daily household chores during the day, as we have to go to several distribution points to collect relief items. As a result, we are forced to work in the evening. This lamp is a relief for us! I can now cook, wash dishes and fetch water in the evening,”
Like the solar lamps, rice husk briquettes, which UN Women has provided to more than 6,000 Rohingya refugee households as alternative fuel, have also been very helpful for women. Rice husk briquettes release less smoke, thus improving the living condition of women and girls who had increasingly been reporting respiratory and eye problems due to prolonged exposure to emissions from the firewood they used inside their tents. Refugee women also received blankets to protect themselves and their children from the exceptionally cold weather in Cox’s Bazar in December.
The experience in Bangladesh shows the importance of listening to women’s voices and understanding their needs based on their gender role when planning humanitarian response. Simple things like lighting and safe cooking fuel can make a significant difference in reducing the exposure of women and girls to risks and hazards. For Rubina and Mahmuda, it’s a matter of mobility, health and safety.
“UN Women is aware that women and men have different needs and vulnerabilities in the time of crisis. Our role is to build awareness of the humanitarian community about these differences so that we can prevent women and girls from being marginalized in the relief activities and left behind,” said Shoko Ishikawa, Country Representative of UN Women in Bangladesh.
 As of 21 January 2018, ISCG Situation Report.