How Women Are Faring in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

Rohingya women are moving past the narrative of victimhood and emerging as leaders in the camps, despite resistance from the men

Photography: Fabeha Monir

OnOn August 25, thousands of Rohingya refugees gathered under a relentless sun in Kuttapalong, the oldest refugee camp in Bangladesh, to commemorate the two-year anniversary of one of the most significant events in their turbulent history. More than 700,000 Rohingyas fled what the United Nations calls “ethnic cleansing” by the Burmese military over a period of several months, starting in August 2017. This year, the refugees gathered to hear two of their leaders, Mohib Ullah and Hamida Khatun. Both testified before the United Nations in Geneva earlier this year. Khatun has emerged as a female advocate for the Rohingyas — a rare commodity in a community where women are seldom broached as leaders.

A tender-faced woman in her fifties, Khatun stepped to the mic and addressed the crowd:

“Many NGOs have given us food and come to hear our stories, but we haven’t seen them do anything else for us. In 1978 and 1991, we told the world what was happening to us, but they didn’t hear us. What does the world want for us? To get our rights, now we, Rohingyas, have to work together.”

TThe Bangladesh government currently houses more than 1 million refugees — almost twice as many Rohingyas who currently live in Myanmar — including migrants from earlier periods of conflict, in squalid camps.

In 1982, Myanmar’s Citizenship Law stripped the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority that has lived in Myanmar for centuries, of their right to vote; legally marry; obtain education, health care, and jobs; and travel freely between townships. Khatun arrived in Bangladesh in September 2017 to escape the severity of this statelessness. This was her second attempt to claim refugee status in her neighboring country. She’d escaped to Bangladesh with her family in the 1990s after a bout of violence erupted in her village. Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a bilateral agreement in 1992, and some Rohingya families, including Khatun’s, were repatriated back to Myanmar.

“This time, the violence was much worse. Thousands of my sisters were raped by the Burmese military. I couldn’t take it. I had to do something,” Khatun says.

According to a 61-page report from the United Nations, sexual violence against Rohingya women was a deliberate move by the Tatadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) to terrorize the community.

Khatun started Shanti Mohila (the literal translation is Peace Women), an organization of hundreds of Rohingya women living in the camp. Last year, Shanti Mohila caught the attention of Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) when they marched throughout the camps on International Women’s Day, calling for peace and justice. LAW connected Shanti Mohila with the Global Rights Commission, which filed submissions on behalf of Shanti Mohila, asking the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute crimes of genocide, apartheid, deportation, and persecution perpetrated against the Rohingya since August 2017. More than 400 women from Shanti Mohila affixed their thumbprint onto the petition.

In refugee camps, economic pressures, cramped living conditions, male frustration at the lack of livelihood opportunities, and a lack of legal structure have led to increases in violence against women and children.

But Khatun and the work of her comrades hasn’t been limited to drafting petitions or seeking justice for war crimes. Achieving formidable gender rights within their community is at the forefront of their agenda.

“In Myanmar, we didn’t know men and women were equal,” says 25-year-old Yasmine Akhter, a member of Shanti Mohila who works closely with Khatun. “We had been denied education and contact with the outside world because of years of isolation by the Burmese government. It’s only when we came to Bangladesh did we see what women are capable of.”

OOver 50% of the camps are made up of women, and their everyday lives are threatened by gender discriminaton and domestic and sexual violence. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, hundreds of incidents of gender-based violence are reported every week, and 77% of women and girls across the camps have reported feeling unsafe. Most stay cooped up in their dark shelters, afraid of sex traffickers or kidnappers, who carry them into the surrounding mountains, where reportedly many young girls are raped. The number of Rohingya women and girls being sex trafficked is also steadily rising.

A teacher named Alinesa, who was born and raised in the camps, ushered me toward a narrow pathway, where a woman, hands on her hips, was reprimanding a slew of kids. “Her husband left her for someone else, and she became a prostitute that works in the big hotels by the beach,” Alinesa whispered to me.

According to research from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, humanitarian emergencies can exacerbate violence against women and girls. In refugee camps, economic pressures, cramped living conditions, male frustration at the lack of livelihood opportunities, and a lack of legal structure have led to increases in violence against women and children.

Approximately six months ago, at three in the morning, 38-year-old Sakhina Begum grabbed her flashlight and burst out of her house. Her neighbors whispered, “There she goes, meddling in other people’s business.” Sakhina marched on until she reached 16-year-old Rehana’s home, where Rehana’s husband, high on yaba pills (the narcotic of choice in this part of the world), had been beating her for the past half-hour, and no one had stepped in to stop him.

Sakhina, who migrated to Bangladesh as a toddler, is a camp committee member, originally enlisted by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to train fellow refugees on hygiene, safety, and other daily life skills. Saving women and girls from domestic violence isn’t one of her duties, but she does it anyway, and the risks are steep. Getting involved in domestic disputes is frowned upon in Rohingya society, where men have the right to discipline their wives. A BBC Media Action report found that violence against women and girls is normalized within the Rohingya community, and domestic violence and extramarital affairs have increased since living in the camps due to the men’s frustrations at being unemployed and stateless.

Sakhina knows the perils of an abusive marriage. A decade and a half ago, her husband left her and her four children for his second wife. After the abandonment, she took up jobs working for aid organizations in the camps.

“Financial power is everything, especially for women,” Sakhina explains. “In some ways, I’m better off. He used to beat me a lot. So now when I see other young women suffering the same, I’m compelled to step in, even though people, especially the men, have labeled me as a wanton woman.”

Sakhina says women rarely seek support from community leaders like her and fellow committee member Hasina Begum, a widow who has also taken it upon herself to solve domestic disputes.

“Women come to us in secret because they’re afraid of repercussions at home. We’re seen as the meddlesome duo,” Hasina chuckles.

Twenty-two-year-old Naima was frustrated with her husband, who is a notorious gambler, wasting away aid money and anything he earns through his job with an NGO in the camps. When Naima questions him, the abuse ensues. Sakhina has intervened multiple times on Naima’s behalf.

“I’ve even gotten him jailed once by reporting him to the official camp in charge. After that, he was scared to hit her for a while, but Naima came to me again recently with a scar on her face,” Sakhina tells me. “I often mediate situations like these, but it’s a slow process to resolve the violence altogether.”

KKhatun and her ensemble of Shanti Mohila members advocate for peace between the genders. She says the end of domestic violence and underage marriage are top priorities.

“We go from house to house and explain that we are guests in this country, and we have to live peacefully, treat each other with respect. We have to progress as a community, and that cannot happen if our women aren’t treated right,” Khatun says.

An additional focus for Shanti Mohila is to procure a source of livelihood for women in the camp. Teachers, medical aids, sanitation workers, community leaders — Rohingya refugee women are taking on a plethora of jobs in the camps. For many women, this is the first time they have ever held a job. Work with local NGOs has increased awareness of empowerment, sexual assault, and basic dignity.

“People say bad things about me leaving the house to go to work and teach. But my family supports me. As long as I don’t shame them in any way, I can work,” says Ashika, a 15-year-old Rohingya teacher. Aid organizations have set up hundreds of learning centers where young women like Ashika have the opportunity to teach and earn a living. But there have been critical setbacks to cultural acceptance of Rohingya women working. Reuters reported that in April, Bangladeshi aid group BRAC said 150 of its female teachers had stopped going to work in learning centers in the camps after receiving or hearing about “violent threats.”

TThough UN Women and other aid organizations have set up women-friendly spaces in the sprawling camps where women can gather and take a break from the dark, cramped shelters they live in, these are not spaces in which most women feel comfortable expressing themselves. This is where official women camp leaders, known as majhis, are stepping in.

“The male majhis were originally selected by the army, so we had no say in who our leaders were. But we are elected as committee leaders, democratically, “ explains Romeda Begum, elected last year in Shalbagan camp.

Romeda was the first woman majhi to be elected, but elections are currently taking place across several other camps. Organized by UNHCR and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, the new committee system, in which men and women leaders are represented in equal numbers and mandates that the leader or deputy leader must be a woman, intends to replace the single majhi system.

“The majhis had no training to deal with issues in the camps, but we get trained,” Romeda says. “The majhis, before, didn’t really help the women. They didn’t pay attention to the domestic violence disputes.”

UNHCR trains Romeda and other elected camp leaders on everything from aid distribution to emergency response, empowering Rohingya women to become decision-makers. The men, however, feel that the women are unfit to lead.

“They’ve never been leaders and don’t know the first thing about taking care of a community. Why are the NGOs making a fool of them and of our culture?” scoffs Noor Mohammed, who lives in Romeda’s camp.

Abdul Hannan, the Bangladeshi government official and camp in charge spoke to me openly about his disdain for gender-based violence programs run by aid organizations in the camps. This year, the cost for those programs has been estimated at $6 million in humanitarian aid. He went on to claim that the focus on these programs by aid organizations such as UN Women and BRAC is causing divorces and breaking up family structure.

“These Western feminists, including Bangladeshi women who work in the camps, are coming here and tainting the minds of Rohingya girls,” Hannan says. “This is not the culture of these people. It is not the way of Islam.”

Khatun, however, feels otherwise.

“In Myanmar, women just sat at home and did domestic work. But in Bangladesh, we have become leaders, are working, are doing things they never did. We are learning to make our own decisions,” Khatun tells me.

According to UNHCR, 32,684 households in the Rohingya camps are now led by women — a result of the massacre of Rohingya men by the Burmese military. The Rohingya community is among the most persecuted in the world, and the women have faced double discrimination all their lives. Khatun and her Shanti Mohila have a tough road ahead of them, but women are transforming Rohingya society and rallying against deep-seated patriarchal norms by working outside the home, becoming political leaders, and giving Rohingyas a voice in front of the world.

“We want equal rights from Myanmar and from our men,” Khatun says. “And we, Shanti Mohila, will do everything in our power to fight for both.”

This story was reported with a grant from the South Asian Journalists Association and the Solutions Journalism Network.

Freelance Journalist. Bangladesh-rooted, NYC born & raised. chowdhuryj315@gmail.com / http://www.jenniferchowdury.com