“I believe our people will [come to] respect women’s rights.” 

By Winnie Sachdev

(Cox’s Bazar, December 1, 2021)—In Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya struggle for survival and basic rights in sprawling refugee camps, having fled oppression and genocidal attacks in Myanmar. Amongst this traumatized population, women face unique risks. 

Yasmin Mirza–not her real name–fled to Bangladesh with her family in 2017, escaping state-sponsored persecution and genocide in Myanmar. Now she works with Rohingya women in the camps, striving to undo decades of patriarchal abuse of women in her community and support survivors of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence, including those subjected to abuse by Myanmar security forces.

“When I was in Myanmar, I didn’t have such inspiration to work for my community. After arriving in Bangladesh, I worked with different NGOs . . . [and] met with experts and specialists who work for women,” said Yasmin, 25. “Their skill, sincerity, and influence motivated me to work for our Rohingya women. They [taught] us what women’s rights are.” 

Yasmin, originally from Buthidaung Township in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, observed the extent of gender-based violence within her community where, she says, psychological, physical, and sexual violence, as well as forced marriages, forced abortions, and forced sterilization remain prevalent. She eventually established a Rohingya-led women’s organization—name withheld for security reasons—that aims to promote the welfare of Rohingya women by providing psychosocial support, preventing domestic and sexual violence, educating women and children, and mitigating gendered double standards.

“In my view, gender-based violence is deeply rooted in gender norms that discriminate and disempower young women and girls,” Yasmin said. “However, we can’t implement all our desired projects due to a lack of resources and financial assistance, barriers from external factors, and most importantly, threats [towards us] from unknown phone calls [because of our work].”

The organization holds meetings where they follow up on sensitive cases, including domestic violence incidents, and connect women survivors with the resources they need. They also organize monthly workshops to educate Rohingya women about human rights and women’s rights, ways to end sexual and domestic violence, and mechanisms to seek justice for those subjected to sexual violence by Myanmar security forces.

However, Yasmin’s work comes with its own set of challenges, including hostility from within her community. 

“When we go to work, some uneducated [Rohingya men] laugh at us and abuse us. Some try to seduce us. Some try to follow us. But we never respond with a reaction to their actions,” she told Fortify Rights. “We navigate these obstacles by consulting [camp] members where these incidents occur, and we let them know what women’s rights are. They come to know the importance of women’s [participation] in decision-making and apologize to us.”  

Yasmin, herself educated up to high-school level, says her experiences providing education on women’s rights to women, men, children, and the elderly have instilled in her a belief that education and knowledge are essential to making change happen.

“To understand gender-based violence, one needs education. We [Rohingya] were restricted to access from higher education. Now, our people are getting different kinds of trainings and workshops on gender-based violence. I believe our people will [come to] respect women’s rights.”

Winnie Sachdev is a Thailand Human Rights Associate with Fortify Rights. Follow her on Twitter @winnie_sv.

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