“If you empower women, you can empower vulnerable societies.”

By Winnie Sachdev

(Cox’s Bazar, December 7, 2021)—Born in Myanmar and raised in Bangladesh, Razia Sultana is a human rights activist, researcher, and founder of the RW Welfare Society, a Bangladesh-based organization working to support Rohingya refugee women through psychosocial counseling, leadership development, and domestic violence and gender-based violence awareness-raising activities. 

“As a woman, I feel that [Rohingya] women need support,” Razia told Fortify Rights. “Most women in the camp are traumatized, and under trauma, they cannot feel bigger. In the beginning, I started working on human trafficking cases and health awareness. I worked with many rape victims and saw their mental health issues, so I began focusing on psychosocial treatment and counseling.”

She also explained how human rights are critical in addressing gender-based violence, saying: “When we start believing in women’s rights, then we can start preventing domestic violence and other forms of [gender-based] violence. But this is a very sensitive issue and it’s not only within the Rohingya community—it’s everywhere.”

In 2018, Razia became a full-time activist and, in collaboration with the Asia Dignity Initiative, piloted a psychosocial resilience program in Cox’s Bazar District. Three years later, Razia’s organization has reached more than 1,000 women from at least 600 families in the camps. RW Welfare Society also prioritizes women leadership development and has trained more than 120 psychosocial support counselors and more than 60 psychosocial support assistants

“Without empowerment, women cannot recognize their rights,” Razia said. “My goal is to empower the women in both the Rohingya community and the host community. If you empower women, you can empower vulnerable societies.”

Part of her work includes discussing sensitive topics with women, including common misinterpretations of Islamic religious teachings to justify such abuse. 

“Men are using their religious beliefs to dominate women,” Razia explains. “But this is totally wrong information. I explain to them that in Islam, women have a higher position and have every right. We try our best to spread the right information about Islam.”

Such actions have garnered backlash from men and leaders in her community, who accuse Razia of being against Islam. She said: 

They tell me that I am harmful for the Rohingya community and our religion. Some of them don’t want to accept women’s leadership. They think we are getting more opportunities just because we are women. But it’s not easy for us, and we face so many barriers. I had to prove myself and achieve my place in society.”

As a result, Razia shared how she is often the target of threats and intimidation, saying: “Before, I received so much harassment on the bus, on the streets, even in the camps.”

In the face of these challenges, Razia credits her friends and family, especially her father, for giving her the support and courage to continue. 

“My father is a role model for me,” Razia told Fortify Rights. “He always taught me that women must be independent because we also have rights and opportunities. He’s very feminist-minded. This support, coming from a feminist man who respects women, always encourages me.”

Razia also described the inspiration she gets from other Rohingya community members, saying: 

My inspiration comes from my refugee community, my diaspora leaders, and all the people who are living in the camps and in Myanmar who still have the courage to lead. My [safety] is secured compared to theirs, but they are still raising their voice and working for women’s rights and Rohingya rights. I get my strength and inspiration from them every day.” 

Razia further shared how her work contributes to the broader efforts to advance human rights, saying: “When we talk about women’s rights, it’s a women’s issue. For us, what we’re fighting for is not a women’s issue, it’s a human issue. We want to be treated like humans.”

In 2019, the U.S. Department of State awarded Razia the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award, which recognizes women from around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.

Speaking about her vision for the future, Razia said, “I envision a future society that supports women activities, whether it’s in politics or social work. I want to be part of ensuring that women are part of society, not just an option. Women are not options. They are necessary. They are essential.”

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

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