Gender-Based Violence A Devastating Plight For Rohingya Muslims

Gender-Based Violence A Devastating Plight For Rohingya Muslims

Written by: Jaimie-lee

Seemingly neverending, the plight of Rohingya’s most innocent — women, girls, and young children — continues on. But just how horrific is gender-based violence for Rohingya people?

From Myanmar, more than 943,529 people became refugees as a result of the August 2017 military coup and prior conflicts. The majority are women, and over 40 percent are children younger than 12 years old.

The Rohingya constitute a Muslim “ethno-religious minority group from Myanmar’s Rakhine State.” Most Rohingya refugees migrate to Bangladesh, their neighbour in the north.

It made sense to migrate to Bangladesh due to a shared culture and language. But the Myanmar people had been exiled from their home state to Bangladesh even before 2017, which was only the most recent overthrow of democratic leadership for a country with decades-long military control.

How Did It Begin? 

Per the running theme of war, most of those involved in starting this fight are men, and those enduring the worst violence, are women and children.

The trigger for this recent exodus of Rohingya people began in 2017, two years after Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was voted into power.

Thus, a two-year democratic reign was all that was allowed for the 53.8 million-strong population since Myanmar’s first military dictatorship in 1962.

The ongoing civil unrest is part of a complex history and enduring turmoil known by the country for a while now. However, history shows the Rohingya population was well present from at least 1785 when the Burmese came in.

Current leaders have deemed Rohingya as detestable Muslim migrants from Bangladesh. This is their reasoning behind not only keeping Rohingya people from enjoying basic human rights but succumbing them to a stateless status, and killing them at will.

Out Of The Frying Pan…

Following the genocidal attacks on Rohingya and others who oppose Myanmar’s current military regime, most refugees fled to their neighbors Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Previously, most refugees were men. However, this changed after 2012. 

Now, women and girls as young as 13 are seen taking lone dangerous journeys by boat as they flee gender-based violence in Rakhine.

Sadly, fleeing Rakhine means little regarding their chances for a better state of living. The boat ride sees women and young girls fall victim to rape and other forms of sexual abuse.

Arrival at the Thailand-Malaysia border camps sees women and girls getting sexually assaulted, sold into marriage, and other horrors.

Forced Marriages And No Pushback Against Violence

Girls under 18 years of age — along with their parents sometimes — are tricked into thinking they might have a better life in, say Malaysia, where they receive a bride price, known as Mahr, for getting married to Muslim men.

These men are 20-somethings, 30-somethings, and even older. And there’s no way of knowing how they might treat their new child bride.

In other places, these girls become part of the human trafficking business, earning profit for their heinous sellers and being forced into marriage or sold into prostitution. 

Domestic violence in Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps is another major issue disproportionately affecting women and girls. Not only that, but there is no legal recourse for threats or acts of violence — a highly prevalent occurrence in the camps.

Cultural Gender-Based Barriers In Full Effect In Bangladesh

Rather than being a safe haven for those most needing protection, Bangladesh’s refugee camps seriously inhibit freedom of movement, restrict access to education, and offer poor living conditions to women and children.

Damaging cultural practices mean women and girls are either harassed when they attempt to learn. Most times they are completely prohibited from any form of schooling.

In fact, while some areas have learning institutions, Bengali authorities stop many humanitarian organizations from building educational institutions.

Local authorities reason that Rohingya refugees will eventually go back to Myanmar, despite all signs showing otherwise. In December 2021, they went so far as to shut down Rohingya volunteer-led schools with the justification that the schools are illegal and not permitted to operate.

By their own admission, Bangladesh leaders have no intentions of allowing the Rohingya people to integrate into their country. Humanitarian organizations, spoken more about below, are the best hope for fighting gender-based discrimination and violence at the camps.

Rohingya Against Rohingya

Meanwhile, Rohingya criminal gangs opposed to the education of teenage girls threaten home-based schools which were bravely set up and run by Rohingya women.

A well-known gang named the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is particularly violent, raping, kidnapping, and killing women and girls when trying to secure their dominance over rival gangs.

But gang activity is not required for women and girls to suffer. One report notes that:

“Women are intimidated into quitting jobs by groups saying women working outside homes is against Islamic principles. According to a refugee in Balukali camp, ARSA also issued a series of fatwas (religious decrees) to control and restrict women and girls from accessing work outside their homes, and demanding that they obey their husbands, and wear burqas.”

Staying home makes little sense when one’s family is struggling to get by. But it becomes even more of a nightmare with the following: 

“The majority of Rohingya women and girls have experienced Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and sexual abuse from their husbands, family members, neighbours as well as members of criminal gangs.”
Official numbers read that “81% of GBV in the Rohingya camps is perpetrated by intimate partners, while 56% of incidents are physical violence.”

It’s clearly near-impossible for many Rohingya women and girls to find relief and just live. And going home to Rakhine isn’t much of an option.

Those Who Stay “Home”

The heartbreaking reality is that this is a lose-lose situation for Rohingya women and girls. 

An official research report on the sexual and gender-based violence committed in northern Myanmar’s Rakhine revealed that

“Women have been subjected to abduction, rape, including gang rape, and other sexual violence. There are also credible reports of forced marriage and sexual slavery. In many cases, sexual violence was accompanied by degrading behaviour, including insults and spitting. When women did escape, Tatmadaw soldiers would frequently search for them, threaten and physically abuse their family, and destroy or steal their property.”

It’s hard to determine when and how such atrocities can be stopped for women and girls in Myanmar. Why are they the ones bearing the brunt of the actions of evil persons who hold strength, control and power? 

Right now, for Myanmar’s innocent, their saving grace comes from those among them willing to take risks. To put their best foot forward despite their circumstances.

Rohingya Women Empower Themselves

Ayesha Khatun lives in Cox’s Bazaar, the largest refugee camp in Bangladesh — and the world. Ayesha knows firsthand how gender-based violence and destructive social norms severely impact her community.

It spurred in her a passion to use her extensive training to help survivors through raising awareness and one-on-one emotional support sessions. For cases that need specialized intervention, Ayesha directs the survivors to care providers and legal support agencies.

Ayesha’s work also personally brings her fulfilment as she earns her own money. “I am empowered and earning money which I can contribute to my family; this makes me much proud and happy,” Ayesha said in an interview.

Another camp resident named Fatema initially faced resistance from her husband. She explained, “…he feared the social backlash against women working outside the home,” to the extent that he did not like her buying groceries at the market.

However, Fatema pushed back in her own way. She attended CARE’s gender equality awareness sessions, equipping herself to eventually become a volunteer trainer for CARE.
Now confident enough to “move freely” and visit the market alone in the community, Fatema empowers other women as well with the help of CARE International.

Elsewhere, organizations like Oxfam provide clothing, hygiene facilities, solar lighting, clean food, and water.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) works on family planning, safe pregnancies, and curbing gender-based violence and child marriage in Cox’s Bazar.

Want to contribute to an organization raising awareness for situations like these, and offering on-the-ground and in-person assistance and resources for women and girls? 

Donate here to Global Foundation for Girls and help make a difference.