What's Happened To The Rohingya Women One Year Since Fleeing For Their Lives

Photographed by Allison Joyce/Stringer/Getty.
More than 130 members of parliament across five southeast Asian countries today called for Myanmar to be investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and for its military to be "brought to justice" for its violence and killings of Rohingya people.
It comes almost exactly a year after Rohingya militants attacked more than 30 police posts in Rakhine state in Myanmar, killing 12 members of the security forces, which opened the floodgates for a security crackdown and a fresh spate of government-backed violence against Rohingya civilians. The Rohingya are a stateless, mostly Muslim minority in the majority Buddhist Myanmar, and have faced years of persecution in the country.

The UN's human rights chief described the situation as a 'textbook example of ethnic cleansing'

The UN's human rights chief described the situation as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing". He called the military's response to the Rohingya attacks "clearly disproportionate" and "without regard for basic principles of international law," adding that Myanmar's government should "stop claiming that the Rohingya are setting fire to their own homes and laying waste to their own villages."
Myanmar's military has long accused the Rohingya people of burning down their own homes, but journalists from around the world have reported evidence to the contrary and many Rohingya people have shared stories of seeing their villages burned down and witnessing other Rohingya raped and murdered.
Rohingya women and girls were subjected to systematic rape and other sexual violence at the hands of Myanmar's soldiers and militiamen as part of the onslaught, with aid agencies on the ground reporting a spike in births conceived as a result of sexual violence nine months after the attacks in May 2018.
The violence on 25th August 2017 marked the start of a mass exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya civilians from the country to the Cox's Bazar district of neighbouring Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands still live.
Refinery29 spoke to two humanitarians currently on the ground in Bangladesh – Clementine Novales, from the Emergency Response Refugee Influx Programme at CARE Bangladesh, and Dorothy Sang, Campaigns Manager for Oxfam's Rohingya Crisis Response – about the circumstances in which Rohingya women and girls currently find themselves.
They're at risk of sexual and other physical violence
In April, the UN accused Myanmar's military of using rape and other sexual violence as a weapon of war against the Rohingya in Myanmar, "to humiliate, terrorise and collectively punish the Rohingya community, as a calculated tool to force them to flee their homelands and prevent their return." Even now, many women and girls who have fled to Bangladesh still fear sexual and other physical violence.
Hundreds of attacks are reported on women each week in the camp, Oxfam's Rohingya Crisis Response told Refinery29 following conversations with refugees on the ground. There are also reports that women are being trafficked from the camps into sex work. "Much of the camp has no lighting, so after 7pm much of the camp can feel a very dangerous place to be for a woman as it's in complete darkness. As such, many don't leave their shelters at night," Sang said.
They dread getting their periods
Many women and girls in the camps aren't coping well with their periods. They're receiving washable sanitary pads from aid agencies like Oxfam but have nowhere private to wash them. This means they're forced to walk for miles to find somewhere free from the crowds.
"Our recent joint agency survey found that half of women and up to three-quarters of adolescent girls say they don't have what they need to manage their periods," Sang said. To avoid the embarrassment of having to wash their cloths in public, adolescent girls in particular aren't leaving their shelters, are reusing dirty cloths and "having to go through a monthly ordeal of shame and discomfort as they simply don't have what they need to manage this in a way that is comfortable."
Their movement around the camps is restricted
Many women are too scared to use the toilet at night because the camps are blanketed in darkness, which leads many to restrict their food and drink intake, as well as their children's, Oxfam told us. When women do leave their tents, they're expected to wear a burqa and because most households just have one, if a mum needs to go, she has to leave her children alone in the tent.
"Having spoken to women in the camps, I know that many of them – a third according to our recent survey – don't feel safe leaving their shelters to collect water or go to the toilet, or pick up distributions of aid items," Sang told Refinery29. "The camps can be dangerous - there are hundreds of attacks in the camps each week, and reports of trafficking."
While services are becoming more physically accessible, women and girls aren't benefiting equally from humanitarian aid because of social barriers such as beliefs about women's mobility, said Novales. "Shame, stigma and fear of retaliation are still the main barriers stopping women and girls experiencing violence from accessing the support that they need."
They're developing health problems
The basics, including food, clean water, shelter and medical care, are being covered but "conditions still remain dire and need to be improved, especially for women," said Sang. According to Oxfam, a further $72 million (£56m) is needed from aid agencies to protect Rohingya refugee women missing out on vital aid who are developing health problems, often as a result of not feeling able to leave their shelters.
"With malnutrition rates incredibly high (at 40%) in the camps, this is of grave concern," Sang added. "I’ve also heard of women suffering abdominal pains and infections from not being able to relieve themselves frequently [for safety reasons]. Many feel too ashamed to seek medical help for this."
They're not getting adequate psychological support
Women and girls were among the most traumatised when they arrived in the camps, and psychological support is lacking. The initial focus has been on "getting people what they need to survive. But the psychological trauma that so many have experienced is apparent and that's why it's crucial that now the response looks into how to provide specialised support for those who have suffered at the hands of violence," said Sang. "That is one of the reasons Oxfam is calling for 15% of new funds to be dedicated to programming that will support women and girls."
Women are gradually empowering themselves
Single mothers whose husbands are missing or dead head up one in six families in the Rohingya camps, Oxfam said. This means many are having to take on public roles that challenge cultural and religious assumptions about women’s place in society.
Oxfam says more needs to be done to support these vulnerable women, such as help with collecting aid packages, and more community dialogue about men's and women's traditional roles. But some women are defying gender stereotypes. Elections for female representatives took place for the first time in June, which was the first time in their lives that many Rohingya women had voted.
The mood in the camps is stable, said Sang, who has "been amazed by the strength and resilience" of the refugees she's met, "surviving on aid distributions, and living in difficult conditions – particularly in the monsoon".
"They continually greet you with a smile and are so grateful for everything that aid agencies, the host community and the government of Bangladesh have done for them. But at the same time it is saddening," Sang continued. "I know that people are frightened of what the future may hold – parents worry for their children, and it is hard to not be able to give people that reassurance."

More from Global News

R29 Original Series