Asia Pacific

Rohingya refugee women take on new roles as workers and learners amid 'forced societal change'

With many husbands dead, work newly available and abuse a threat, Myanmar Muslims break away from tradition in camps in Bangladesh

by Belinda Goldsmith and Naimul Karim

Thomson Reuters Foundation

On a blue mat in their mud-and-bamboo home in the middle of the world’s largest refugee settlement, Mohammad Selim is pacing his 9-year-old daughter Nasima Akter on her taekwondo drill.

As a local taekwondo champion in his majority-Rohingya district in Myanmar before fleeing to Bangladesh 18 months ago, Selim dreamed of making a career of his sport, but now is hoping that his daughter can instead follow that path.

He said it was impossible to teach her in Myanmar, as taekwondo was considered improper for girls and he didn’t have time, but the Rohingya’s flight to camps near Cox’s Bazar in southeast Bangladesh has started to change his society’s rules for women.

Women and girls make up about 55 percent of the 900,000-plus mainly Muslim Rohingya living in about 34 sprawling, crowded camps in the settlement, and they are needed to work or to run households because many have lost their husband.

“I want my daughter to learn taekwondo and one day represent us as a champion,” Selim, 35, said via an interpreter, watched by his wife and three other younger children in their tidy two-room shelter. “Our society is conservative, and we prefer covering our women. But in taekwondo you are covered, so people can’t question a girl participating. We practice inside to not get criticized, but many people regret they cannot teach their daughters.”

Most Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have been there for 18 months now. With life starting to become more routine in the camps, Selim is not the only one breaking away from the Rohingya’s previous lifestyle, in which women rarely left the house and were segregated from men.

He is hoping to get approval to teach taekwondo to other girls in the camps, where children do not have access to a formal education but can attend learning centers until about age 14.

More than 730,000 Rohingya have fled Buddhist-dominated Myanmar since August 2017 to escape a military offensive that the United Nations called “ethnic cleansing” of one of the world’s most oppressed people, joining others already in Bangladesh.

The chance of returning soon to Myanmar looks remote, with Bangladesh vowing to only repatriate volunteers.

The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said in late January it was clear they cannot return “in the near future” with the situation in Myanmar unchanged.

Myanmar has denied most allegations of persecution.

Women-only areas

Aid agencies and nongovernment organizations working alongside Bangladesh’s government in the camps were aware from the outset that women and girls were vulnerable to sexual and other violence, both on their journey and in the camps.

To address this, they have set up women-only projects and committees to encourage women to get involved in the community, as well as counseling services for those who suffered abuse.

But not all Rohingya men used to a conservative Islamic lifestyle are happy to see women taking on new roles and making decisions, adding to the risk of domestic violence — which aid groups said is on the rise in the camps.

“Some men say it is a sin for women to work, because in Myanmar we never worked,” said Nuran Kis, 40, a Rohingya mother of eight who is teaching others to sew in a women-only center.

“My husband supports me, though, because we need money and want to survive,” she said, sitting cross-legged in her two-room home on a hill overlooking the Balukhali camp, a maze of dirt roads and makeshift shelters.

Shameema Akhter, who coordinates eight women-friendly spaces in the camp for Bangladesh’s largest NGO, BRAC, said some men were initially reluctant to allow women and girls to go to these centers, but gradually that is changing.

She said they run craft sessions for the women and girls, teach them to sew, talk to them about the risks of rape, human trafficking and child marriage, show them how to manage hygiene and provide one-on-one counselling for anyone abused.

Akhter said that when they arrived many girls were given sanitary pads but had no idea how to use them, and cut them up as facial tissues. Handouts of cereal — a food not known to the Rohingya — were sold at markets for a fraction of the real value.

Most of the Rohingya are illiterate, having had limited access to education — and health care — in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where they were refused citizenship and free movement.

“Many of the girls were depressed and traumatized about being raped or being forced by their families to get married and very shy,” Akhter said in the group’s center, decorated with brightly colored paper cutouts. “But now they want to come here and learn skills that might help them and their families in the future.”

Limited work

Under Bangladeshi government rules, Rohingya cannot take formal employment, but they can join cash-for-work projects run by NGOs in the camps to earn about 400 Bangladeshi taka ($5) a day — and some women have taken previously male-only roles.

Dola Banu, 35, is one of the women building roads and other infrastructure under a site maintenance engineering project (SMEP) run by United Nations agencies International Organization for Migration, World Food Program and UNHCR.

“This is the first time I have ever done any kind of work like this,” Banu said via an interpreter during a break from carrying bricks for a new road. “I like this work and want to keep doing it as long as I can to support my family,” said Banu, who is raising her four children as a single mother after her husband died.

Aid workers said these new roles are giving women more confidence, and more are willing to take leadership roles in the community so they can raise issues such as the need for more lighting by latrines, where women fear being attacked at night.

“This is a group going through forced societal change, and women are finding new forms of confidence,” said Gemma Snowdon, a WFP spokeswoman based in the beach town of Cox’s Bazar, about 40 km (25 miles) from the nearest of the camps.

She said a key barrier for female-led households is child care, so they plan to launch mobile child care and boost self-reliance by teaching women skills such as growing vegetables, sewing and repairing mobile phones.

Some help has come from outside the settlement as well. Launched late last year, the Testimony Tailors website (testimonytailors.com) lets users fund and pick garments to be made by about 40 female Rohingya, with finished items donated to refugees in the camps.

Jamila Hanan, a British-based manager at #Hands4Rohingya, which supports the project, said all the women and girls involved in the project are between ages 15 and 40 and survivors of rape or massacres. Many witnessed family members being killed.

“This cooperative is them helping themselves. … It has been incredible to see them supporting each other,” said Hanan.

While some Rohingya are struggling to accept women’s new roles and projects such as encouraging girls to play soccer, for others like Nasima Akter, the changes are part of adjusting to life in the camps for the foreseeable future.

“I want to be a champion and bring pride to my people,” she said with a big smile.