The world’s largest refugee camp is no haven for women and girls. Previously viewed as a safe place of refuge from persecution in Myanmar, Rohingya women and girls face daily risks of violence and abuse.
The Rohingya camps braced for, were hit, and have largely recovered from the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, a pre-existing epidemic of gender-based violence (GBV) remains, silently permeating the tarpaulin households and bamboo structures of the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“All girls are scared living in the camp. We don’t feel safe to go to school, to the tube-well, to visit anyone outside of the house, to go anywhere,” said Mehirma, a woman who lives in the camps. “Here there is no one to protect us. If anything bad happens, we are on our own.”
Her sentiments are echoed by multiple recent studies, along with the voices of countless adolescent girls and women residing in the Rohingya refugee camps of the Cox’s Bazar district in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
In 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya were forced to settle there after fleeing across mountains and rivers to escape mass murder, rape, sexual assault and arson in Rakhine State on the western coast of Myanmar. The largest refugee settlement in the world formed in the already crowded, developing Bangladesh, turning a protected forest into a sprawling ‘mega-camp’ roughly the size of lower Manhattan. The majority of the world’s Rohingya population now reside there.
Stories like Romana’s* are common.
“When I was 16 years old, I married a boy in my community. Though my sisters married after 18, my parents agreed to my young marriage,” she said. “We were pressured by neighbours, and I was facing harassment from some boys in the community at the time.”
Once Romana’s marriage was finalised, she said she was forced to discontinue her studies against her will and was harassed daily by her mother-in-law. Romana also said she was beaten brutally for not completing domestic tasks to standard, and that her new family took away her gold – the only thing of value that she owned.
“I felt like a terrorist in a prison,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep well and take any rest due to all the required domestic work. And they still beat and harassed me, even when I would complete it.”
Fear prevented Romana from seeking help. Yet finally, she ran away to her family and told them about the reality of her new marriage.
Koli* said she was forced to marry at 14 to a man twice her age, who physically abused and raped her in their home. She was forced to have a child at the age of 15, despite wanting to wait to have children and dealing with health issues.
The birth was extremely painful, and she was not permitted by her husband to go to hospital. The child died shortly after birth. Her husband then forced her to bear two more children, when she was 16 and then 17. Both children survived, but experienced serious illness, due to Koli’s young age and poor health.
Soon after, Koli’s husband divorced her and remarried. Today, she wants change for the next generation of girls like her.
“I dream of my daughter becoming a lawyer, so that we can stop child marriage and domestic abuse in our community. I don’t want my daughter, or any child in this camp to marry before 18. I don’t wish what happened to me to happen to another.”
The perilous position that unmarried young women face in the camps increases desperate attempts of human trafficking for marriage, according to John Quinley III, senior human rights specialist with the human rights watchdog Fortify Rights.
“Over the years we have documented trafficking of Rohingya women and girls to Malaysia sometimes for forced marriage,” Quinley said. “The refugee camps lack many opportunities for Rohingya women and girls and so many are exposed to situations of exploitation.”
This was the experience of Jannotara.
Jannotara was divorced by her physically abusive husband after their first child was born, leaving her without a partner and vulnerable in the camps. She was trafficked to India with the promise of a “good, wealthy and young man” who wanted to marry her.
Jannotara walked for more than a week with her trafficker, but once she arrived at her destination in India and met her husband-to-be, she burst into tears. The trafficker ran away with her money.
The husband she faced was an old man, who in no way fit the promised description. With no way to escape, Jannotara said the man sexually assaulted her. She eventually met another Rohingya whom she sold her gold earrings to. This provided her with the 20,000 Bangladeshi taka, about $200, required to have her smuggled back across the border into Bangladesh.
Jannotara now lives back in the Rohingya camps with her brother. No one wants to marry her due to the trafficking incident.
“I feel that my life is meaningless. I don’t know how I will support my son,” she said. “There are so many girls in camp who have been trafficked and then returned to camp like me. No one will marry us now. We are in an even worse situation than before.”
A 2019 study by the International Rescue Committee found the informal justice system afforded to most Rohingya refugees seldom includes female participation at any level.
“It is rare that punitive action is taken against the perpetrators,” said Farzana of UN Women, adding that “social stigma and a patriarchal mindset” contribute to gaps in referral mechanisms.
“The extremely low proportion of female majhi [unelected officials in charge of a camp block] slows down the mediation process and complicates the justice-seeking mechanism.”
When women do report any kind of domestic or sexual abuse, interventions only serve to escalate the issue or provide an unsatisfactory outcome, regularly including victim blaming. Mediation sessions, composed of local male decision-makers, often shame and blame the survivor and attribute responsibility for the violence to the survivor.
If a negative verdict is delivered to the perpetrator, it is generally a “warning.” In these cases, there is the risk to the survivor of revenge violence taking place at the hands of either the perpetrator or relatives of the perpetrator.
“The camp is lawless,” said Mehirma. “Sexual harassment, assault, rape, teasing; it is all common. When girls are forcibly harassed, they keep it a secret. Because they know they will be hated and blamed, and that no one will want to marry her.”
The situation is made even more complicated and challenging due to the cultural norms of the Rohingya population. The Rohingya community generally upholds the cultural practice of purdah; a practice of secluding women from men not in their immediate family, confining women to “private” spaces excluded from the public sphere.
In rural Myanmar, Rakhine villages had more culturally suitable gender-segregated arrangements and increased social cohesion between communities, resulting in less crime. Accepted gender norms could be enacted without the additional difficulties faced in the Rohingya camps.
“In Myanmar, we did not face such difficulties maintaining our honour and dignity,” said Mehirma. “There were specific areas for women to perform necessary daily tasks and spend their time. In camp, parents are afraid to let their daughters outside, as everyone knows there are no repercussions for anything.”
Despite such dire experiences, Quinley of Fortify Rights said “many Rohingya women have taken on leadership roles” to address violence in their communities.
“Some have started women-led organisations in Bangladesh and Malaysia to help trafficking or domestic abuse survivors. These groups should be supported,” he said.
Still, without a more robust official response, women say a sense of lawlessness abounds. The effect is that adolescent girls and women are forced to remain silent.
“Many girls in the Rohingya community have suffered like me,” said Romana, the young woman who escaped her child marriage.
“I would like to request the international community and humanitarian workers to support us and our efforts to prevent child marriage, domestic violence, sexual harassment and trafficking. Because in the Rohingya community, these events are so common.”
* Names have been changed in order to protect sources from reprisals.
Dayna Santana Pérez is a researcher and humanitarian program director.