“I feel fortunate and proud of my education!” In conversation with a Rohingya Young Women Leader
Written by Anniesa Hussain, Peacebuilding Programs Intern for Asia
Edited by Mallika Iyer, Asia Programs Coordinator and Humanitarian Action Specialist
The Rohingya have been stateless Muslim minority group who reside in Myanmar’. There are around 1 million Rohingyas among Myanmar’s total population of 52 million. They are recognized by the United Nations as among the most persecuted ethno-religious groups in the world. The Myanmar government have denied the Rohingya people fundamental freedoms for decades – most notably citizenship through the 1982 Citizenship Law. The Citizenship Law rendered the Rohingya community stateless based on their race and religion. As evidenced by the ongoing International Court of Justice investigation, the Rohingya people have endured a genocidal campaign perpetrated by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) in the Rakhine State, where the vast majority of the community live. On 25 August, 2017, the storming and burning of Rohingya villages by the Tatmadaw resulted in 1.3 million Rohingya people from Rakhine State in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. At least 6,700 Rohingya were killed – around 730 of which were children. Women were targeted and raped. Today, the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar are the largest in the world.
Among the thousands of refugees living in Cox’s Bazar is a young Rohingya woman called Lucky. Lucky’s story is one of survival. She is an outspoken young women’s rights activist who fled with her family in August 2017 and is one of the few refugee women able to pursue an undergraduate degree remotely at a local university. In the refugee camps she advocates for gender-responsive humanitarian action, which empowers Rohingya women, young women and girls, and helps meet their urgent and intersecting needs.
Lucky has participated in advocacy led by the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) to promote synergies between implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda and humanitarian action frameworks, including Bangladesh’s National Action Plan (NAP) on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325). Since 2018, GNWP have worked in Cox’s Bazar to elevate Rohingya and Bangladeshi women and young women peacebuilders as decision-makers in humanitarian action; build local women’s and communities’ resilience to threats and violence; and advocate for gender-responsive and conflict-sensitive humanitarian action and crisis recovery.
Through a series of capacity building training, GNWP, in partnership with Jago Nari Unnayon Sangsta (JNUS), strengthened the literacy, peacebuilding, social media, theater and leadership skills of young Bangladeshi women leaders from Ramu and Ukhiya upazilas. The training established a network of Young Women Leaders (YWL) from the host communities in Cox’s Bazar to advocate for gender equality. The young women leaders have led initiatives aimed at improving the gender-responsiveness and conflict-sensitivity of humanitarian action in Cox’s Bazar. They were able to identify literacy as a barrier to empowerment and responded by conducting gender-sensitive literacy and numeracy classes for 180 Rohingya refugee and host community women and girls. These classes have empowered attendees to be able to sign their names on legal documents, read critical signage within the refugee camps, and access life-saving information.
GNWP conducted a virtual interview with Lucky on September 15, 2021.
GNWP: How do you build peace and promote gender equality in the refugee camps?
In the camps, Rohingya women, young women, and girls face many forms of violence, discrimination, and marginalization. I am one of the few Rohingya refugee young women able to access higher education and so I decided to put my education to good use by advocating for women’s rights and gender equality within my community. I have led training for women, young women, and girls in my camp on women’s rights, sexual health, preventing child marriage, and leadership. I explain that women have the right to study – even after marriage. I connect with women in my community through one to one calls or in person and help them understand how important education is for our empowerment.
GNWP: What achievement related to your activism are you most proud of?
I am proud that I am able to study at a local university – which most other Rohingya girls cannot do. I am also grateful for freedom and family support. My mother supports me physically, mentally, and financially and my father allows me to fly as much as I can. Their support has enabled me to advocate for the rights of Rohingya women and girls to global policymakers. I am fighting for education and training opportunities for all Rohingya girls.
GNWP: What challenges do you face? How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your activism?
The pandemic has greatly impacted the rights and safety of Rohingya women, young women, and girls. I am struggling to participate in university’s classes, important advocacy meetings, or capacity building trainings. There are no in-person meetings, so I must do everything online. It is very difficult to connect to the internet in the refugee camps – even with a cell phone, I do not have service. With all of the mobility restrictions door to door advocacy has also become difficult. In the refugee camps, we are not allowed to hold any in-person meetings, while host community members are able to move around freely. Some people get angry at me and say, “why are you trying to convince us to get an education?”
But the worst impact of the pandemic is on our safety and security. After 6:30PM, the refugee camps are run by violent extremist groups. It is very dangerous for women and girls to move around. People try to intimidate me and other girls from studying. But I tell them that I deserve to study – just like anyone else. I’m not tarnishing my reputation or my family’s dignity by educating myself.
GNWP: What are some of the main challenges that Rohingya women, young women, and girls experience in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar?
Gender inequality is the biggest challenge Rohingya women, young women, and girls experience in the refugee camps. We are scared to use the washroom and toilet at night. Six families have to share one washroom. There is no privacy. We do not know the families we are sharing the washroom with. We just live together in the same block. If I knock on the door to use the toilet, I don’t know who is inside. We are ashamed to share the toilet due to our cultural beliefs. There is a risk that people will think negatively of me if I’m seen going into a toilet with a boy. If this situation becomes public, the community will not like it and say, “she has done something wrong with boys’”. Nobody will marry me.
Many women also suffer from domestic violence or sexual harassment. When a man gets married again he must divide the limited amount of food he has between two families. My mother is married and has a husband. But if my father wants another wife, my mother does not have the right to ask him why he is getting married to a second or third wife. She cannot complain, or else she could be subjected to beating or divorce – this is difficult for women to manage. Men also control our mobility. If I want to go out somewhere in the camps, I have to ask permission from my parents. They will ask me, “Where are you going today? Why don’t you have any class today?” They will investigate and follow me. They could block my right to mobility and keep me at home.
There is very limited awareness of contraception and family planning too. Many boys are unaware of the consequences without it. So, when a girl is pregnant, her family will blame her. Her community will shun her and no one will marry her.
GNWP: Are Rohingya women, young women, and girls needs being adequately addressed by humanitarian actors?
As far as I know, humanitarian actors are providing food and other relief goods for Rohingya refugees. There are even ongoing literacy and numeracy education classes. But it is not enough for the entire Rohingya population. In addition educational opportunities are largely ineffective. For example, teachers are not teaching girls how to write in Burmese or English or do math. They are just playing with the students to make them happy and forget their trauma from Myanmar, so the girls are not learning anything. Older women barely have access to education – especially at higher levels.
We also do not have access to doctors who know our language or respect us. Therefore it’s difficult to receive support for our sexual health and reproductive rights. If you are suffering from a menstruation or pregnancy related problem and you seek medical advice from a nurse or volunteer, they are not equipped to provide you with relevant medication. The current conditions make Rohingya women despondent and unwilling to seek help from the hospitals. Our sexual health and reproductive rights should not be de-prioritized by humanitarian actors in the refugee camps – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
GNWP: What recommendations do you have for the Bangladeshi government to improve conditions for Rohingya women, young women, and girls in the refugee camps?
My request to the government of Bangladesh is to push for quality education for Rohingya women and girls in the camps. I know that by educating the women, young women, and girls in the refugee camps, we will be able to shape the world and demand accountability for the protection, preservation, and promotion of our rights.
GNWP: What recommendations do you have for international policymakers to improve conditions for Rohingya women, young women, and girls in the refugee camps?
We need opportunities to advocate for our rights. We need to be able to represent ourselves – instead of having others represent us in important meetings with policymakers. We need to be able to influence decision-making on humanitarian interventions that affect our lives. I urge humanitarian actors to organize regular meetings with us and establish a system for us to provide feedback and share our priorities. For example, we could develop monthly information reports.
I am not only speaking for myself, but for all Rohingya women and girls facing similar issues. They can’t speak for themselves because they lack the opportunities or are forced into marriage. We need opportunities to hear from all Rohingya women and girls. Otherwise, our basic needs will not be met in the refugee camps.