The Rohingya Muslims are a minority community within Myanmar who have long been persecuted through the denial of citizenship and basic human rights. In recent months, Myanmar’s military have increased the intensity of their ‘clearance operations’, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing their homes. Although all those who have fled are seriously affected, this post will explore the specific challenges faced by the Rohingya women within these communities.
The Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar into Bangladesh is thought to be the world’s fastest-growing refugee humanitarian crisis, with over 625,000 having crossed the border since August.
Approximately 51 percent of the displaced population are women and girls, and within the rising emergency many face unique challenges because of their gender. They are disproportionately affected by sexual violence and assault, limited access to healthcare, and the underground sex trade.
UN doctors working in refugee camps have reported hundreds of cases of rape and sexual assault since October, with a vast number being perpetrated by members of the Burmese security forces and soldiers from the army. Evidence of particularly aggressive attacks has been found by medical officers during physical examinations of the women, with one officer stating, “We found skin marks, it showed a very forceful attack, an inhuman attack”. Although the Burmese authorities have stated they will investigate any claims of rape, many Myanmar officials have dismissed the allegations of abuse as militant propaganda. Within a crisis such as this the limited resources tend to focus on urgent care in the aftermath: a situation report from aid agencies found that 350 people had required ‘life-saving care’ as the result of gender-based violence, and yet this report made no mention of the perpetrators. The lack of widely-known reporting mechanisms creates an inability to guarantee justice, and combined with the shame associated with rape in the conservative Rohingya society, it creates an environment which magnifies the emotional trauma experienced by these women, in addition to the physical. In April, a UN report said sexual violence was “employed systematically to humiliate and terrorise” the Rohingya people. In short, weaponised rape and sexual assault are used against the women and their community to terrorise them into leaving their homes.
Another factor which disproportionately affects female refugees is access to healthcare, which comes in the form of sparse and overstretched humanitarian relief services. The United Nations Population Fund estimates nearly 150,000 of these women are of reproductive age, and 24,000 are pregnant and lactating. These women have unique healthcare needs and require specific maternal support, which is more often than not unavailable. Some have had no choice but to give birth at the roadside. Furthermore, the continued increase in the number of refugees mean that the camps lack sufficient numbers of latrines and hygiene facilities. As a result, men and women are forced to share toilets without basic measures such as gender segregation. These are often badly lit and unprotected, meaning sexual exploitation can coincide with dangerous levels of hygiene.
Additionally, the scarcity of food and water is forcing many women to turn to desperate measures such as prostitution in order to feed themselves and their families. ‘Recruiters’ target vulnerable women and girls, including newcomers, with the promise of money or support. As a red cross worker stated; “If aid agencies can’t manage to provide people with their basic needs, the risk of trafficking grows”. Although support services for women trapped in such circumstances do exist within some refugee camps, many women are unaware of their existence. This reflects a wider problem in which female refugees, many of whom are heads of households, aren’t informed of how to access health, aid, and support services within their community.
Despite this turmoil, there exists a glimmer of hope and resilience, among women. Women are emerging as front line support, leading other women and connecting one another to aid and support. This support is essential for women, a space where they are able to share stories, care for one and other and receive any assistance they may need. Crises can often highlight the importance of women, having an active role in society. At JAN Trust we hope that the Rohingya stop suffering oppression because of their religion, and they get the help from the international community they need in order to resettle.