Photo credit: Naimul Haq - Photo: 2017

Traumatised Rohingya Women Bear the Brunt of Persecution

By Naimul Haq

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (IDN) – Shefali Aktar, mother of three, fled her home in Thaphanbin, a tiny village overlooking the Arakan Mountains in Rakhine state in Myanmar.

The 22-year-old pregnant woman escaped near death when her neighbour helped her and her children to hide in the nearby forest the night after the entire population of about 600 families in her village was wiped out.

“I went back to my village the next evening to find my husband. Instead, I found dead bodies,” says Shefali, breaking down in tears as she continues to narrate the horror.

“I witnessed men being dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night and being shot at. Housewives in the thatched houses outnumbered men, who mostly stayed away to escape rape, torture or killings. This was a daily affair as embedded informers constantly had vigil on our [Rohingya] movements,” recalls Shefali in fear.

Shefali made an agonising walk for nine continuous days, mostly after sunset to avoid being caught by Myanmar’s Nasaka border guards and the army.

She is among a group of 17, mostly women, children and old men, who negotiated their ways over difficult, often slippery and muddy, terrain in dense forest.

“Every second of our journey was tense and horrifying as we moved in total silence in the dark,” says Shefali as she narrates her ordeal. “The children were not even allowed to cry. We had no idea what lay ahead but we slowly moved in fear.”

As the world watches the horror faced by the Rohingya unfold, Medicines Sans Frontier (Doctors Without Borders) has disclosed startling news – over 6,500 people have been killed by the country’s military junta, which is now being accused of genocide.

Myanmar once had pride in having a leader like Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, but today she and her military leader Gen Aung Min Hlaing could face possible genocide charges.

Meanwhile, every day about 2000 Rohingya refugees cross into neighbouring Bangladesh seeking safe refuge in Cox’s Bazar. So far, close to one million people, mostly Muslim Rohingya, have been given shelter on a 30 km stretch of land since the most recent persecution of the Rohingya started in 2016-2017.

In the crowded camp in Kutupalong, the largest so far accommodating over 350,000 refugees alone, stands Rasheda Begum, who shares her story of a similar ordeal.

“The entire village is now empty,” says Rasheda, who lost her husband and parents during military attacks in early September in her village in Kamaungtaw, a small rural community of about 400 families in Rakhine state. She now describes her village as a ghost community.

Fleeing villages is the only option for the Rohingya to survive and the government of neighbouring Bangladesh has shown tremendous generosity in sheltering the Rohingya from unprecedented atrocities. About 38,000 of them had already been living in Bangladesh since 1992.

The persecuted Rohingya community is still fleeing its ancestral home in Myanmar, with thousands arriving in the coastal upazilas (district sub-units) of Ukhiya and Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar located some 386 km from the Bangladesh capital Dhaka.

The situation in the camps, now dubbed a ”critical humanitarian emergency”, is highly vulnerable, especially for the Rohingya who, having fled conflict and experienced severe trauma, are now living in extremely difficult conditions.

The challenge is enormous and the international community is facing difficulties in addressing too many people with far too little. The fastest growing refugee camps in the world now face a funding crisis: of the total funds [434 million dollars] sought so far [only 34 percent has been disbursed.

Despite the difficulties, many international aid agencies have been offering services that demand immediate attention like healthcare and psychological counselling.

MERCY Malaysia, which was among the first to respond quickly to the gigantic crisis, is one of over 150 international aid agencies working to help Rohingya communities meet their needs for survival.

Amran Mahzan, Executive Director of MERCY Malaysia, told IDN that “many of the women are traumatised, whether from witnessing the violence back home or from the hardships suffered from the one or two months of travelling and walking across the border to reach the camps.”

Mahzan said that “in response to the greater need of the traumatised women, MERCY Malaysia has started sending MHPSS (Mental Health and Psychosocial Support) trainers to equip our local staff in providing PFA (Psychosocial First Aid) as they are our first line responders in the clinics in the camps.”

Even with many other agencies offering medical services, MERCY Malaysia’s clinics are never short of patients, whether men, women or children. Having been one of the first to set up primary health clinics, MERCY Malaysia has become a trusted medical and aid provider in the largest camps in Balukhali and Kutupalong.

COAST Bangladesh, also a pioneer in offering emergency assistance to the refugees, has been the local partner of MERCY Malaysia in Cox’s Bazar.

“As privacy is an issue in the cramped and overcrowded camps,” explained Mahzan, “our new centre will have a separate treatment room and private consultation space where women can relate their health problems to our doctors safely.

“Dignity and safety is an important aspect that is often overlooked, as many of the women are pregnant as a result of rape and cannot speak up for fear of being stigmatised by others. We will also recruit female health care professionals for the comfort of these women.”

The number of pregnant women in the camps is overwhelmingly high. Around 18,000 women are now known to have been registered recently for deliveries. “This is just a fraction of the total we estimate,” says a local hospital physician.

One challenge is dealing with the poor knowledge of women about nutrition and pre- or post-[pregnancy] natal care. “Our doctors continuously provide advice to women on maternity care and safe delivery, but with language and cultural differences being barriers, the level of compliance remains to be seen,” said Mahzan.

Speaking with IDN about his agency’s global experiences in such crisis management, Dr Sathya Doraiswamy, Chief of Health at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), said: “Access to emergency obstetric and newborn care services, clinical response services for survivors of sexual violence, basic package of prevention for HIV and sexually transmitted infections and strengthening coordination of sexual and reproductive health services are our priority.”

Dr Doraiswamy also noted that “women-friendly spaces are a very important part of life-saving services. Here at the spaces we provide women and girls with a safe entry point for life-saving services and a place to access information.”

“Women and girls can access referrals for medical services, counselling, and other life-saving services. These safe gathering spaces also offer women and girls an opportunity to engage with each other, to build important connections, solidarity and support with other women and girls, and rebuild community networks. Safe spaces are a key way of building women and girls’ social assets,” he added.

Olivia Headon, spokesperson of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Cox’s Bazar told IDN: “There have been cases of women and girls becoming the target of traffickers, hoping to prey off their vulnerability. IOM is working to prevent exploitation and trafficking. Connected to this is also the issue of force and early marriage. Seen as a means of protection and economic empowerment, we are concerned that young girls are being married off to older men.”

“However,” she said, “these underlying problems are often not given as much attention as more visible issues like lack of food or healthcare needs. IOM is currently seeking funding to enhance it counter-trafficking and gender-based violence programming to prevent it from happening and to properly support survivors. The urgency of addressing this issue soon cannot be overstated.”

Mohammed Abu Asaker, spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cox’s Bazar, told IDN: “For the vulnerable women and children who suffer from trauma due to what they experience in the past, UNHCR and partners are setting up individual follow-up for their cases which involve not only medical referrals, but also psychosocial follow up. The needs for psychosocial support are enormous.”

Many of the refugees have lost family members in their villages or on the way and are deeply traumatised. For many years, the Rohingya have been deprived of their identity and nationality.

They are stateless and have had no regular access to basic human rights such as education, health care or even regular access to food. Their freedom of movement in Buddhist-majority Myanmar was severely restricted.

Myanmar and Bangladesh recently signed an agreement anticipating the peaceful return of these refugees, most of whom see no hope of returning in the near future.

“It is critical that returns do not take place precipitously or prematurely, without the informed consent of refugees or the basic elements of lasting solutions in place,” explained Asaker.

“People must have the option of returning home, and not be confined to specific areas. Progress towards addressing the root causes of flight, including their lack of citizenship, as recommended by the Rakhine Advisory Commission, will also be crucial.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 December 2017]

Note: All names of women have been invented to protect the identity of the victims.

Photo credit: Naimul Haq

IDN is the flagship agency of International Press Syndicate. –

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