Photo Essay: "I want to live in peace"
Rohingya women in Bangladeshi refugee camps share stories of loss and hopes of recovery
Senu Ara arrived in Cox’s Bazar the same way as many other Rohingya refugees: On foot.
After a week of walking barefoot, Senu and her three sisters reached Bangladesh, tired, hungry and thirsty, having left their home in fear of the escalating violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar.
“I saw the military in Myanmar burn down a lot of houses, and kidnapping and killing others. We fled to Bangladesh to save our lives,” says 17-year-old Senu. “We only had food with us for two days. We went on for another four/five days without food and drank water from the canals. At night we slept in the forest and were constantly afraid of the military finding us, especially because our father was too old and we were four sisters without any other male family member who could protect us.”
“After entering Bangladesh, local villagers gave us food and like the other Rohingya before us, we entered the camp.”
In the makeshift Rohingya camp at Balukhali, Cox’s Bazar, it’s common to hear stories of burned homes and missing children. The Rohingya women tell stories of their murdered husbands and rape, of losing hope in human-kind.
“In Myanmar, the military kidnapped my brother and beat my husband. My brother is still missing. Many of my relatives have been kidnaped, especially girls, and killed by the military. From my village, 10 to 12 families fled together,” says 22-year-old Noor Nahar.
“We stayed for sixteen days at the bank of a river because we had no money to give to the boatman. We made a temporary shed and collected food from empty houses in the nearby villages. We saw many dead bodies inside the houses and on the roadside. Finally, a boatman felt bad for us and helped us cross the river. I do not want to remember those terrible days, ever again”.
Bangladesh has been hosting Rohingya refugees from Myanmar for nearly 30 years. Since August 2017, some 693,000 Rohingya’s have made their way to Cox’s Bazar in desperate conditions. Of them, 51 per cent are women. The refugee population in Bangladeshi settlements has more than doubled; camps are overcrowded, needs are immediate and enormous, and resources are stretched.
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.
Through the winter, UN Women, the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs and ActionAid Bangladesh distributed dignity kits to nearly 8,000 households, specifically targeting women and girls and those with special needs.
Today, a Multi-Purpose Women’s Centre inside the camp, supported by UN Women, provides support for the most vulnerable and marginalized women and girls, in particular, women from female-headed households, elderly women and adolescent girls.
Women’s mobility is an important factor to consider within the camp. Traditionally, Rohingya women are expected to wear a burqa when leaving their home or shelter. In the camps, women often share a burqa among themselves to access public spaces. Some have to wait for their turn to borrow a neighbour’s burqa to even step outside their shelter.
Every day, about 70 women and girls visit the Centre for an array of services, including information and referral services for psychosocial support, and education on nutrition, health and sanitation. The Centre also works to raise awareness of intimate partner violence, prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, child marriage and trafficking.
Women have bathing space and clothes washing facility at the Centre—an important service in an area where safe and private spaces for women and girls is scarce. It also provides women and girls who are otherwise confined and isolated in their homes, a safe space to relax, learn new skills and socialize with other women.
To date, 467 Rohingya women and adolescent girls have received health counseling and 834 women received psychological first aid support at the Centre.
Ayesha Khatun, an outreach worker for the Multi-Purpose Women’s Centre, visits women and girls in their homes and encourages them to come to the Centre. Once, Ayesha reached out to an adolescent girl who was interested to go to the Centre and learn new skills, but her father refused to allow his daughter to step out of her home. Ayesha managed to negotiate with the father and convinced him to allow his daughter to visit the Centre.
Ayesha herself goes to Multi-Purpose Women’s Centre every day and practices tailoring.
Twenty-two-year-old Minara Begum is another outreach worker for the Multi-Purpose Women’s Centre. Minara has helped pregnant women reach relief distribution points and carried relief items for them. She has learned to speak up and now presents the issues of other Rohingya women refugees to the authorities in charge of the day-to-day management of the camp.
To celebrate International Women’s Day in March 2018, women and children flew kites adorned with aspirational messages. The Rohingya women in the camps made the kites themselves and wrote demands and wishes on them.
At present there are thirty women employed as Community Outreach Members with the Centre.
“Women need support from each other to cope with this crisis,” says Noor Nahar. “If the women who are new get support from us [at the centre], they can support each other better.”
I don’t know what will happen… but I want a better future for my children, I want to live in peace.”
Photos: UN Women/Allison Joyce