Women mobilize to prevent COVID-19 in crowded Rohingya refugee camps

To prevent an added humanitarian crisis in the already-vulnerable Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 24 Rohingya volunteers are working with UN Women to mobilize their communities and raise awareness on COVID-19.

Date: Friday, April 17, 2020

Mobina Khatun is a Rohingya woman volunteer with UN Women in Cox's Bazar.
 Photo: UN Women/Pappu Mia
Mobina Khatun is a Rohingya woman volunteer with UN Women. Photo: UN Women/Pappu Mia

According to UNHCR, as of 15 March 2020, there were 859,161 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh – the majority of whom are women and girls. As of 13 April 2020, the country had 621 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 34 deaths.

“To prevent this disease, we need to provide more awareness on personal cleanliness, hand-washing and the do’s and don’ts when one [is sick],” says Mobina Khatun, 45, a Rohingya woman volunteer in the Ukhiya sector of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Every day, she conducts door-to-door visits with women across Camp 4, providing crucial prevention information, while observing physical distancing.

She worries about the impact COVID-19 will have on female-headed households in the camps, because of the prevailing social norms and women’s traditional role as primary caregivers. “If the mother is affected, then all her children are vulnerable,” she says.

Although COVID-19 mortality rates are lower among women than men, and children seem to be less susceptible, sex and age disaggregated data is still emerging, and latest findings show that in some countries, COVID-19 infections among female health workers are twice that of their male counterparts. Refugee populations face additional challenges – such as lower levels of nutrition, which reduce the immune system’s ability to fight disease, and less access to sanitation and medical care.

“We are afraid because we have nothing,” explains Mobina. “As we live in a very congested area, if there is limited access to medical treatment and the virus comes here, we all will die. So, we need sufficient hygiene materials like soap and masks, along with doctors and nurses.”

Social norms and gender roles in Rohingya communities have also limited women and girls’ access to information, which leaves them more vulnerable to the virus, especially given their role in caring for children, elders and sick household members.

The rise in domestic violence and other forms of violence against women as a result of social tensions and panic in the camps is another key concern for these women. Global estimates show that in crisis settings, more than 70 per cent of women experience gender-based violence. UN Women’s recently launched report already shows a growing shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls in the context of COVID-19—domestic violence helplines and shelters across the world are reporting an increase in calls, by as much as 30 per cent or more in some countries.

To counter the gendered risks and barriers for women and girls in Cox’s Bazar, Rohingya women leaders self-mobilized, forming networks and raising awareness on COVID-19 across all camps.

Nurussafa (left) works to keep the community informed on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the camp. Photo: UN Women
Nurussafa (left) works to keep the community informed on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the camp. Photo: UN Women

“The pandemic has made life in the camps harder. Food prices have increased and there are shortages of stock due to the restrictions put on transport and movement,” explains Nurussafa, a 25-year-old Rohingya woman volunteer in Camp 5. She says women face the added burden of having to collect more water and cleaning and washing more frequently.

After being recruited as a volunteer, she was trained on COVID-19 prevention, including handwashing, respiratory hygiene and social distancing, as well as when to seek medical help and the importance of staying calm.

Through her door-to-door visits, she tells women how to protect themselves and what to do in case of infection. She also resolves disputes between community members. To mitigate the increased risk of domestic violence and abuse, she connects women and girls to the women-friendly spaces established in the camps by UN Women.

Nurussafa says she enjoys her new role. “As a volunteer, I get the chance to attend meetings and trainings where I can enrich my knowledge and skills… and help protect my community from COVID-19. As I am working with UN Women, I have an official identity and dignity. My family and community respect me.” 

Her husband also supports her. When she goes to work, he takes care of their two daughters.

Beyond supporting and training these women leaders, UN Women has six Gender Officers seconded to the Camps-in-Charge (which oversee humanitarian actors, coordinate and liaise with government and security) in 12 refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. They are advocating to ensure the voices of Rohingya women and girls are heard, their needs are addressed and their rights protected.

Mani Elizabeth Chakma is UN Women’s Gender Officer working in camps 3, 4 and 4 extension. She says it has been harder to do regular field visits because of COVID-related measures that limit movement in the camps. “When I finally reach my specific camps, my field volunteers come to me, looking happy to see me. At the end of the day, I feel proud that my volunteers have successfully reached so many Rohingya refugees with these messages.”

As of early April, Rohingya women mobilizers had already reached 2,863 community members within a week.

UN Women’s humanitarian work with the Rohingya refugees and host communities in Bangladesh is generously supported by the Governments of Japan, Canada, Sweden, Germany, and Australia.