In late August 2017, nearly 700,000 Rohingya people began fleeing persecution and the destruction of their homes in the northern Rakhine province of Myanmar (Burma), seeking refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Women and girls in the country have faced systematic rape and other sexual violence at the hands of Myanmar's soldiers and militiamen as part of the onslaught. And now, approximately nine months later, aid agencies have spoken of a spike in births conceived as a result of sexual violence, the Guardian reported.
Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), both of which have been responding to the needs of affected women and children, are readying themselves to counsel new mothers and have warned of an increase in the number of abandoned babies. Most Rohingya had no access to healthcare or abortion services in Myanmar.
The women who have given birth "may feel they cannot care or are not equipped to care for their new baby," Melissa How, a medical coordinator with MSF, told the Guardian. "Many of them are young women under the age of 18. Additionally, how they will be perceived socially due to stigma is an added stress."
What is happening in Myanmar?
The UN has described the military offensive against Rohingya in Rakhine as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing" and reports of the violence have made for harrowing reading. Along with brutal sexual violence against women and girls, Rohingyas' villages have been burned down and people have been hacked to death.
In the month after the violence broke out last August, at least 6,700 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under five, were murdered, according to MSF. Meanwhile, the country's government says 400 people have died and that the "clearance operations" ended on 5th September – despite evidence to the contrary collected by journalists on the ground.
Why is it happening?
The Rohingya people are Muslims living in the majority-Buddhist Myanmar, who aren't recognised as citizens by the government and are effectively stateless as a result. Extreme nationalists in the country say they're illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, while the Rohingya argue that they're natives of Rakhine state.
How have women and girls been affected?
The Myanmar army has been using rape as a weapon of war, according to a UN report. "The widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to [the army's 'clearance' operations], serving to humiliate, terrorise and collectively punish the Rohingya community, as a calculated tool to force them to flee their homelands and prevent their return," said the UN secretary general, António Guterres.
Women, including those who are pregnant, are considered by the armed forces "as custodians and propagators of ethnic identity," he continued. "This can be linked to an inflammatory narrative alleging that high fertility rates among the Rohingya represent an existential threat to the majority population."
Births as a result of rape have been reported before now. MSF reported having treated 224 victims of sexual violence up to 25th February, but that many more women won't have sought help.
Midwives who have treated the women report hearing tales of brutal sexual assault, public rape and gang rape, and that many women have visited hospitals bleeding, most likely having tried home abortions. The victims also face long-term psychological trauma and the risk of trafficking.
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