In August 2017, more than half a million Rohingya living in the Rakhine state had to flee to Bangladesh and escape the military’s crackdown on the Muslim minority. As of 2020, approximately 900,000 Rohingya were living in southern Bangladesh in cramped refugee camps with overwhelmed resources. In addition to fearing widespread genocide and ethnic cleansing, some of the Rohingya refugee community also experience gender-based violence and assault. In fact, violence against Rohingya women is quite prevalent.
Sexual Violence Against Rohingya Women
Accusations emerged that the Myanmar military committed widespread rape against women and girls in the months following the initial purge of Rohingya from the Rakhine state as a means of intimidating the population and instigating fear. In an annual watch list of security forces and armed groups suspected of using rape and sexual violence in conflict, the U.N. listed Myanmar’s army in 2018. Responding to the aftermath of the August 2017 violence, Médecins Sans Frontières reported that at least 230 survivors of sexual violence in the camps, including up to 162 rape victims.
Violence from Both Sides
A recent New Humanitarian interview with six Rohingya women found that violence against Rohingya women is prevalent and stems from within the community. Women often experience persecution if they are outspoken about women’s rights or have an education. Women in the camps have reported experiencing harassment, kidnapping and attacks by groups with an affiliation to Rohingya militant groups such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Further, in 2019, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launched an effort to empower women through self-organization and engagement in formal and informal decision-making and leadership positions. Now, however, Rohingya women who volunteer for NGOs have recounted how the “night government” or ARSA have threatened to abuse them and evict them from their house if they do not stop their work.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
Further, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, humanitarian groups including U.N. Women and UNCHR reported an increase in gender-based violence and child marriages. An International Rescue Committee (IRC) report from January 2021 found that reductions in protection staff led to a decrease in the Rohingya community’s trust of and communication with protection actors and “a vacuum in conflict, mediation and legal services.” In addition, the IRC found that the decision of the Bangladeshi government to suspend gender-based violence prevention programs such as Girl Shine, reduced the number of reports of instances in camps. EMAP and Start, Awareness, Support, Action (SASAI) impacted community awareness and reporting of cases significantly.
Highly dependent on community volunteers, aid groups are unsure of how to proceed; on the one hand, if aid groups continue to employ women volunteers, they risk endangering these women and making their situation worse. Indeed, in March 2021, days before International Women’s Day, U.N. Women canceled a billboard campaign that was to feature the faces of multiple women leaders as it feared it would cause unintentional harm. However, on the other hand, not employing women means a lack of empowerment and stable income.
In searching for solutions to the growing violence in the camps, many Rohingya have decided to relocate to Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Benegal but which is prone to natural weather disasters such as cyclones and storm surges. Since December 2020, 19,000 Rohingya have moved to ‘the floating jail’ as some groups call it. Another proposed solution would be to increase security in the camps, but aid workers fear notifying Bangladeshi authorities of the violence will tighten the already strict restrictions on the Rohingya and infringe on their limited freedoms.
Despite such challenges and somewhat problematic solutions, Rohingya women continue to demonstrate resilience. One of the women the New Humanitarian interviewed who started receiving threatening voice messages after she called for women’s equality in an aid organization video, decided to push back and continue posting her video on social media. She claimed that “When someone is speaking courageously, they stop.”
– Annarosa Zampaglione