The Plight of Women & Young People in the Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Young Rohingya girls are given life skills education in the camps of Cox's Bazar through modules adapted by UNFPA for the refugee camps. (Image: UNFPA Bangladesh/Allison Joyce)

Young Rohingya girls are given life skills education in the camps of Cox’s Bazar through modules adapted by UNFPA for the refugee camps. (Image: UNFPA Bangladesh/Allison Joyce)

By Asa Torkelsson
DHAKA, Aug 31 2018 (IPS)

August 25, 2018 marked one year since violence erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, triggering the massive Rohingya exodus to neighbouring Bangladesh. As the crisis continues with no immediate end in sight, it is crucial to expand and sustain health and life skills services for Rohingya women, girls and youth to locate opportunities amid challenges.

As humanitarian actors strategise a long-term response to this protracted crisis, there must be a strong emphasis on the interactions between the obvious pillars of aid – food, water, health, sanitation, shelter and protection – and the special needs of women, girls and young persons, including safer pregnancy and childbirth; the prevention of, and response to, gender-based violence; and education and life skills for children and youth who will, in all probability, become adults in the camps of Cox’s Bazar.

A year ago, renewed violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State ripped 14-year-old *Fathema’s family apart. Her father and brothers were killed, her widowed mother became the head of a household on the run, escaping with Fathema and her other daughters to the crowded Rohingya refugee camps in neighbouring Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Given the atrocities experienced by so many thousands of Rohingya women and girls, the immediate humanitarian response focused on providing urgent medical attention and health supplies, along with psychosocial counselling for traumatized survivors, including those who became pregnant through rape.

Much of this help came through Women Friendly Spaces in Cox’s Bazar – the “shanti khana” or “homes of peace” – which have long provided a safe space for women and girls to avail of essential services, or simply to bond with others, as they seek to heal. The help and information provided there have also inspired many Rohingya women to become community volunteers themselves.

40-year-old Zarina* recalls, “In Myanmar, I didn’t know child marriage was bad.  Here, through the caseworkers at the Women Friendly Space, I’ve learnt about it and other issues like domestic violence.  My eyes are now open, my brain is working. I realise that child marriage is bad for health, it robs a girl of her youth and her life.  I want to end child marriage.”

Zarina and other community volunteers are also seeking to improve a key health indicator.  Currently, only about one in five pregnant women in the refugee camps will give birth in a proper health facility, despite the availability of dozens of trained midwives and other personnel.

Sometimes they are prevented by their husbands – or, in the case of women who have been raped, they fear stigma and discrimination from the wider community.

“Giving birth is like a war, it can be so challenging,” said 35-year-old Nasreen*, another community volunteer. “Every month I help four to five women to the facility here for deliveries. If girls or women don’t willingly want to go to the delivery services, I convince them to access health points and ensure safer pregnancy and childbirth.”

Back in Myanmar, Fathema would probably have been married by now, and, at 14, may already have become a mother. But, just as Zarina and other women were provided with key information about life and love, a new youth-focused initiative at these Women Friendly Spaces is transforming them into learning centres for Fathema, her sisters and other young persons, teaching them about the spectrum of gender equality and rights through the prism of sexual and reproductive health and well-being.

The module – adapted from the global Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) prototype – underscores how crucial it is to impart life skills education as early as possible, to better equip young persons to navigate the often difficult choices faced during the transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, including issues such as gender equality, pubertal changes and hygiene, relationships and conflict management.

For young girls in particular, long constrained by the complexities of patriarchy and sexism, the sessions can be liberating, showing them how they should be in charge of making decisions about their own lives – including if and when to marry and to whom, whether to have children and how many, and how to better address and protect themselves from gender-based violence and child marriage.

 

UNFPA Bangladesh Representative Asa Torkelsson surveys monsoon preparedness in the Rohingya refugee camps of Cox's Bazar. (Image: UNFPA Bangladesh/Allison Joyce)

UNFPA Bangladesh Representative Asa Torkelsson surveys monsoon preparedness in the Rohingya refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar. (Image: UNFPA Bangladesh/Allison Joyce)

 

These concepts can be overwhelming for any young person, and all the more so for those raised in particularly conservative environments. But by bringing such issues to the forefront in a gentle, non-threatening way, multiple points of view can be discussed and debated openly and safely.

Fathema learnt so much from the sessions at the Women Friendly Space, she’s become a volunteer herself. “The first people I talk to are my parents,” she said. “And then I talk to other young people in my area. I knew nothing about the changes that happen to girls. Now I know how to cope, and I can help other girls as well.”

Putting all these lessons into practice will not be easy for Fathema and her peers, just as it hasn’t been for Zarina and older refugee women, but introducing them to these ideas is an important first step towards moving from disempowerment to empowerment, even in this challenging context.

As humanitarian actors strategise a long-term response to this protracted crisis, there must be a strong emphasis on the interactions between the obvious pillars of aid – food, water, health, sanitation, shelter and protection – and the special needs of women, girls and young persons, including safer pregnancy and childbirth; the prevention of, and response to, gender-based violence; and education and life skills for children and youth who will, in all probability, become adults in the camps of Cox’s Bazar.

“Initially I faced violence from my husband because I had four daughters which he wasn’t happy about,” Zarina said. “But I now teach my husband and others about gender equality.”

*Not their real names

Repression in Rakhine, and the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’

Rohingya children wait after arriving to Shahparir Dip in Teknaf, Bangladesh. Credit: IPS

By Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury
Aug 31 2018 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

In my previous avatar as a diplomat, like much of the rest of the world, I saw myself as an ardent advocate for change in Myanmar. It was in the grip of Generals who ran a horrendously repressive regime. In 2009, urging calm on those who wished to come down hard on the ruling junta, I had written in a publication: “The main challenge with Myanmar is to find the right balance between the carrot and the stick. The balance needs to tilt in favour of the carrot.” A decade down the line, circumstances require me to alter that thesis. Today, I would opt for the stick. And much of the rest of the world would agree.

Not so long ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was internationally extolled as a champion who, if afforded the opportunity, could effect the necessary positive transition. With global support she got her chance after winning the elections in 2015. What happened thereafter was a let down by her of gargantuan proportions. As the military pulled wool over the world’s eyes by staging a supposed transfer of power to the civilians, she became an active player and partner in the drama. It was a political theatre in which the global audience was taken for a ride.

Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, sadly succumbed to the machinations of her military. She paid, it seems quite willingly which is unfortunate, a hefty moral price for the office she found herself installed in. She appeared to sacrifice some fundamental values of decency, much to the regret of her former admirers. As violence perpetrated by her government made headlines which she did little to prevent, she was stripped of several awards. Even the rescindment of the Nobel Peace Prize has been contemplated. The recent UN Report on atrocities committed by the Burmese against the Rohingyas in Rakhine explains the burgeoning global vitriol against her. She had failed to stand up for the stateless minority, a million of whom were forced in recent times to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. She and her civilian colleagues are, “through their acts and commissions”, seen to have “contributed” to the commission of unspeakable “crimes”, as the Report painfully records.

Ms Suu Kyi attributed the military action that led to the indiscriminate burnings, pillage, killing and rapes in Rohingya villages of Rakhine to the “danger of terrorist activities” in a recent speech in Singapore. She said Myanmar had implemented 81 out of 88 recommendations of the Annan Commission, a highly disputed claim. She asserted that it was the responsibility of Bangladesh to determine how quickly the process of return of refugees was to be completed. It was a futile attempt on her part to attempt to create a moral equivalence between Myanmar and Bangladesh that would be a distasteful distortion of reality. The world wasn’t buying—132 legislators from ASEAN to which Myanmar belongs, called for an international accountability mechanism to impartially investigate human rights violations in their fellow ASEAN country.

Much earlier, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al Hussein, had called Myanmar’s actions a textbook case of “ethnic cleansing”. Now comes the report of the UN fact-finding mission that goes much further. The authors of the current document called for six top military generals including commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, to be investigated and prosecuted for “genocide”. Furthermore, they demanded that the generals also be tried for “crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States”. They stressed that given the entrenched culture of impunity in Myanmar’s political and legal system, the only chance of accountability was through the international legal system.

So what is the recourse available to the international legal system? In 2005 a summit at the UN General Assembly of world leaders unanimously adopted a norm called the “Responsibility to Protect” or “R2P” in short. I was myself at that time, as a “friend” of the president of the General Assembly, closely associated with crafting the language, though at that time this particular situation was totally unforeseen. Simply put, the principle stated that it was the duty of every state to protect their own populations. Should it be unwilling or unable to do so, this responsibility would devolve on the international community. However it would have to be discharged by collective action through the Security Council. There was a caveat, though, designed to prevent unilateral action, such as was undertaken by the West in invading Iraq in 2003. It was that R2P could only be initiated when one, some, or all of the following occurred: “genocide, war-crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity”. In remarkably calculated use of terminologies the UN officials have, at different times, referred to all four situations as obtaining in Myanmar, thus actually clearing the legal way for the Security Council to apply the principle of the R2P. It is worth noting though that R2P could also take the form of developmental support that could create positive conditions to enable the avoidance of the ultimate tool, military intervention.

But UN officials do not decide on such matters. Member States do. In the Security Council the passage of any such call to action will be rendered difficult due to the veto powers of China and Russia. Either, or both, if past actions are a guide, are likely to prevent any adoption that could contain the possibility of application of force in Myanmar. So the Security Council is unlikely to be a medium for the resolution of the problem. The most directly concerned country in this issue is, of course, Bangladesh. Any forcible regime change in Naypyidaw would not be seen by Bangladesh in positive light. For one thing, external intervention is something that Bangladesh could not support in principle, because such phenomena enhance the vulnerability of weak states vis-a-vis the strong. Second, it could turn Bangladesh into something like a Pakistan to Myanmar’s Afghanistan. And third it would divert world attention to the military action, or any war, away from the resolution of the refugee crisis, which is in Bangladesh’s primary interest.

But there are also other options. It is understood that there is enough evidence to bring the named accused to book. The fact that Myanmar is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) need not stand in the way. There is ample precedence for special tribunals, as in the case of Rwanda, for the purpose. The world must be made too small a place for criminals of such ilk to hide. Targeted sanctions, covering travels and bank accounts, including of dependents, would be a deterrent. For proven offences, international arrest warrants could be also contemplated. Such individual actions, however limited their impact, are still better than military interventions which oftentimes spill innocent blood. The United States is shy of using the term “genocide” in this context, not because it doubts that it is the case, but because it would then compel them to take some actions under American law, that they may not be ready for yet. The issue may be low on President Donald Trump’s priorities, but Ambassador Nikki Haley is substantially energised and may be poised to make a difference, both at the UN and in Washington. The European Union has an opportunity to display its commitment to human rights, and now is a chance to demonstrate the values it prides in.

In February 1972, as a young commerce ministry official, I had accompanied Foreign Secretary SA Karim in the first ever delegation to Rangoon from the newly independent Bangladesh. In a meeting with the Burmese Foreign Minister Colonel Hla Han we requested the return of the Pakistani aircraft flown out to safe haven in Burma around mid-December in 1971. He refused. The colonels of yesteryear have been replaced today by generals in their power-scheme. Nonetheless the obduracy has remained a constant rather than a variable in their behaviour. Those days Burma operated on the periphery of the global system. According to Ralph Pettman, a distinguished Australian analyst, Burma had actually chosen to opt out of it. At present times, for a variety of reasons including the Rohingya crisis, Myanmar is more centrally located on the matrix. It also has the searchlight of curiosity turned on them. Perhaps they will now learn that the arc of the moral universe, however long, is ultimately bent towards justice. The sooner they do so the better for them, and for the world.

 

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is a former foreign adviser to a caretaker government of Bangladesh and is currently Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.