News

Four women, four stories: Safe spaces allow Rohingya refugees to rebuild their lives

1 July 2018
UNFPA Bangladesh/Allison Joyce

The sheer numbers are staggering. The stories, no less.

Since August 2017, almost 700,000 Rohingya have fled horrific violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, crossing over into Bangladesh. There, in Cox’s Bazar District, they’ve joined some 300,000 refugees from previous years.

More than half the refugees are women and girls. Many have experienced rape and other forms of gender-based violence.  

Many women have shared wrenching accounts, demanding justice. Many others have not, far too traumatized, fearing the stigma and discrimination that may ensue.

UNFPA has responded by creating Women Friendly Spaces – 19 so far - facilities where women can gather and seek health advice and referrals, as well as psychosocial counselling.

Here they sing and pray. Sit quietly or sleep. Laugh with friends old and new.  Or, not surprisingly, cry.

Rohingya women call this space ‘shanti khana’ – a “home of peace” – a space away from the crowded refugee settlements, a space where men are not allowed, a space where they can begin to heal.

And as the women begin to heal, their dignity and sense of worth gradually restored, some of them want to help the “shanti khana” help others as well. 

Here, from the UNFPA Women Friendly Space at the Old Kutupalong Refugee Camp, are four stories of four women. They, in turn, speak for many others still struggling to find a voice.

Note: These stories were conveyed, and images taken, with the full understanding and permission of the women that the content would be shared by UNFPA and partners working on the Rohingya humanitarian response. Consent forms have been signed and filed at the UNFPA Bangladesh Sub-Office in Cox’s Bazar.  All images: UNFPA Bangladesh/Allison Joyce

 

Arwa, 30, Community Volunteer

UNFPA Bangladesh/Allison Joyce

I witnessed more than 500 people killed in Myanmar. I ran away with my children, with only the clothes on our back. We took 14 days to reach the Bangladesh border.  We were hungry, thirsty. It was horrible.

We reached the Kutupalong camp, where we met outreach workers who told us about the Women Friendly Space. We went there, had a bath, ate, slept.

I didn’t know about the availability of hygiene supplies through Dignity Kits, about service points, about how to respond to gender-based violence.  We learnt about all this through the case workers. I attended the awareness sessions, and then offered to become a community volunteer.

I knew there were rape survivors in our community, and brought them to the Women Friendly Space. They got immediate treatment. I also brought pregnant women for referrals to health facilities for safe deliveries. 

A few weeks ago, I noticed a woman was arranging for her 12-year-old daughter to get married.  I told this woman not to do so - it would damage the girl, her health could deteriorate, early pregnancy would be harmful.  The mother agreed.  Earlier I didn’t know that child marriage is harmful, but through the Women Friendly Space staff I now know.

Initially I faced violence from my husband because I had four daughters which he wasn’t happy about. But after counselling at the Women Friendly Space, I imparted knowledge to him, and now gradually over time we have a better conjugal life.

Now I am earning money through small jobs, I am getting respect, my husband also shows me that respect and acknowledges the gift that is our daughters.  He sees how I can contribute to everyone’s life.

I also do awareness among the adolescent girls’ families – they used to be restricted, now they are allowed to roam out and attend sessions and get knowledge.

We are aware of the trafficking occurring in the camp areas.  Girls will not be allowed to meet unfamiliar people, we must protect young girls and women from trafficking. 

In Myanmar, women’s mobility was very restricted, we weren’t even allowed by the men to go to the market or the bazaar. I am enjoying the mobility in Bangladesh.  Even my husband asks me to go shopping for vegetables and other items.  This gives me confidence.

I now teach my husband and others about gender equality, a concept alien to us in Myanmar. Bangladesh is much more a gender-equal society. I could not be as courageous as I am unless I was attending the Women Friendly Space, and absorbing so much new information about my rights.  The space is like a school – if it wasn’t there I wouldn’t be here speaking to you today.

We are so thankful to Bangladesh –their hospitality has been a blessing.

We feel awful when we recall the plight we suffered back in Myanmar and think about what happened. I have seen how they collected young girls from each family and raped them – I hid in the jungles.  I cannot forget those things, ever.

But the frequency of those memories is less, as we are so busy in the Women Friendly Space.  But it suddenly hits you, the memories, the trauma. In the ‘shanti khana’ we can forget for some time what happened, it’s a respite.

I am requesting you, please don’t send us back to Myanmar without justice – ensure us justice first.  We lost our fathers, brothers, everybody.  I don’t believe we will ever be allowed to get our lives back there.  If you cannot keep us in Bangladesh, then kill us here – at least I know I will be killed by a Muslim.

I once had a large house, a large yard, but now I am in a makeshift shelter.  But at least I can sleep. 

We are praying for you, we are praying for us. I will do everything for the Women Friendly Space, it has given me back my life.

 

Khushnuma, Women Friendly Space Volunteer

UNFPA Bangladesh/Allison Joyce

I am a Rohingya refugee and came to Bangladesh when I was a child, undocumented, and eventually married another refugee.

I was the first Rohingya volunteer at this Women Friendly Space, actually.  I liked the information I received here, shared it with other women and girls in my community, brought them here, and then decided to do more through this space.

We get so much emotional support at the Women Friendly Space. Sometimes we face violence in the camps – for me, it’s through my husband, my in-laws and other relatives.  Sometimes when women and girls go to the toilet they face harassment too.  The caseworkers here teach us how to respond to such situations.

The space is really the only place where we feel some comfort.

My husband came to the Women Friendly Space initially to check whether other men were there or entering the space or chatting up women. He was pleased that it wasn’t the case.  He allowed me to continue.

My husband is a rickshaw-puller; we have two sons, one is ours and the other is adopted, an orphan who lost his mother. I really love him. The little one brings water to me when I go home from my job, whereas my own natural son doesn’t! 

With the encouragement of the Women Friendly Space caseworkers, I have acquired skills in sewing. I initially fixed my old clothes, made new clothes for myself and others, and then bought a machine. 

I’ve been working from home for a while now, earning a decent amount during Ramadan, and teaching other girls and women how to sew as well, charging them 2500 Taka (US$ 30) per course!

 

Nasreen, 35

UNFPA Bangladesh/Allison Joyce

We suffered so much in Myanmar – our families, our children, killed – young girls raped – but we escaped.  We were thirsty for seven days – not a drop of water.  We tied our bellies tight, so we wouldn’t feel any hunger. My kids tried to eat soil.  They suffered diarrhea, lots of illness. 

It was so tough when we arrived in Bangladesh, we slept on the streets of Cox’s Bazar.  UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) gave us tarpaulins.  WFP (the World Food Programme) gave us rice.  We got a shelter.  We slept.

We were in the community when we heard of the UNFPA Women Friendly Space; that’s when we reached this ‘House of Peace’.  We didn’t know any of the service points in the camps when I arrived; now I do, and I introduce them to other women and girls.

My relatives, my nieces, were rape survivors, they were ashamed, we didn’t know what to do for them.  That’s when the Women Friendly Space came to our help – to their help.

We also bring our children here; our kids witnessed the slaughter and the atrocities, they have nightmares and cannot sleep.  Here they can play together in a nicer environment.

Bangladesh is offering us a lot of peace.  We are doing well.  We can eat, we can get services, we had nothing like this in Myanmar.

It is not that we are always comfortable or well, of course.  I continuously cry inside and when I cannot tolerate it any more that’s when I come to the Shanti Khana.

Earlier, we couldn’t share our stories with anyone, even small domestic issues between husband and wife.  Now we do have that ear.

Our daughters were married off early in Myanmar so they could be protected; the military would abduct and rape them.  If they were married there was a lower chance of that happening.

But I am now working to prevent child marriage; I know that getting married below the age of 18 is not good for health or relationships.  If I hear of such cases I do advocacy, and bring the adolescents and their mothers to the Women Friendly Space as well.

Giving birth is like a war, it can be so challenging. Every month I help four to five women to the facility here for deliveries.  I have acceptance in my community.  If girls or women don’t willingly want to go to the delivery services, I convince them to access health points and ensure safer pregnancy and childbirth. What I cannot make them understand the case workers can make them understand.

I tell the men, if you are suffering from any illness you go outside of the home to a health point – so why not let your women access them as well?  If I fail, then I ask my husband to convince them.

Case workers and volunteers earlier worked on my husband to change his conservative attitudes, and he is now working for the community to convince them to let women and girls have choices and access. My husband is a member of the mosque hence he’s an influential member of the community and uses this to help influence other men positively.

The refugee crisis and our new surroundings have ironically made women stronger, and that is seen by men as well.  Compared to Myanmar, women here are brighter – our women too – and more beautiful as well – it is strange, but true.

I really don’t want to go back to Myanmar, they will kill us there.

 

Zarina Begum, 40, Women Friendly Space volunteer

UNFPA Bangladesh/Allison Joyce

We suffered a lot in Myanmar; the torture knew no bounds.  Even though I am a refugee, I now find peace in Bangladesh – not under a tarpaulin house, but in the Women Friendly Space.

I am now a volunteer, helping my community and earning some money as well.  I have the respect of my people.

My eyes are open, my brain is working at the Women Friendly Space. Earlier, I didn’t know anything.

I visit many places across the camps.  In Myanmar I was always kept indoors. I’m enjoying this aspect of this life, I am thankful and fortunate in this regard.

When I was in Myanmar and the violence happened and I saw how they cut off the legs of my mother-in-law, I ran away from there with my four children – two boys and two girls, one of them married.

They slaughtered many people, burning homes. Four girls from one family were raped and then killed, I saw their bodies with their mouths open.  I was so afraid the same fate would befall me and my daughter.

We knew that in Bangladesh we may not have any food, but that we wouldn’t be raped.  We would survive.  Luckily now we are getting food and shelter.

When we arrived in Bangladesh we had nothing.  One villager in the host community gave me new clothes.  I also got a UNFPA dignity kit – it had clothes, a bucket for bathing and sandals.  The only sandals I ever got were from UNFPA.

In Myanmar, I didn’t know child marriage was bad.  Here, through the caseworkers at the Women Friendly Space, I’ve learnt about it and other issues like domestic violence.  My eyes are now open, I realise that child marriage is bad for health, it robs a girl of her youth and her life.  I want to end child marriage.

I know rape survivors – and I know they must be sent to the hospital within 24 hours of the incident ideally, to get the best treatment.

Q. You talk with such confidence and exude such a strong spirit – how do men view you in that regard?

I walk down the street boldly – men and boys stare at me.  I tell them not to stare, to mind their own business – you do your thing, I’ll do mine.  I say to them that this is not Myanmar – we have more life and freedom here regarding gender empowerment.

We used to live in the ‘old way’ – but once I went to the Women Friendly Space and did sessions there, I went home with my confidence restored.  I prayed in that ‘shanti khana,’ that ‘Home of Peace’, I recited the Koran.

Even my three kids who were with me when I came to Cox’s Bazar were saved by the Women Friendly Space when they were very ill – they were referred to the hospital and were saved.

This is why I was so keen to work as a Women Friendly Space volunteer.

In Myanmar we learnt that even if you have three daughters and one son, the boy gets more food than the girls.  Here we learned that that is wrong.  Now I know it should be equal between girls and boys, women and men. Parents’ love should be equal for sons and daughters.

I now know about family planning information as well – large families create challenges and inequalities.  The best gift from God is that you are able to provide for your family, your children – smaller families make that more possible.

Of course, I want to go back to Myanmar, to my real home.  My tarpaulin shelter here is not my home.  Rains damage it, thieves can break in and steal our food and other items, they can even kidnap and steal my children. 

There is trafficking and sex trade in the camps as well – I am concerned about this. If a girl is good-looking she is in danger – I have heard of three or four girls who ended up being trafficked.  I teach girls how to protect themselves – including using a whistle to call for help.

Whether we are alive for five minutes or five years, we need our real home. But I can go back to Myanmar only if I can have my real identity.  I ran away from there to save my kids – if I lose them then what will I do?

 

If these stories have inspired you, and you would like to help us help the Rohingya refugees, please consider making a donation at UNFPA.org/Rohingya