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Where men can't go

Veronica Pedrosa is with UNFPA's humanitarian response team in Cox's Bazar. 

Enter with respect and curiosity, and you will be richly rewarded, but only if you’re a woman.  Sorry men, but this is one of UNFPA’s Women Friendly Spaces and men aren’t welcome. Let me tell you about this one at the Shamlapur Rohingya refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and explain what these spaces are all about, so you can understand their special power.

One woman in a colourful shalwar kameez stands by the door as a man approaches wanting to talk to his wife, but he’s firmly sent on his way.

I’m here to document the visit of a team from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a generous donor to UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, an agency playing a key role in the response to the Rohingya refugee crisis. About 20 women are gathered and the Australians are introduced, while the women are invited to speak about themselves and the value of this place to them, but only of course if they want to.

The team leaves after a few minutes but we are invited to stay a while by the women who run this Woman Friendly Space, their smiles warm and welcoming.

Image: UNFPA / Veronica Pedrosa

As you cross the threshold, sandals are piled up so you have a sense of people in the space, but what are they doing? “Mysterious woman things”, maybe? Nope, two teenagers are point stitching, others are gossiping and playing games. Infants and toddlers join in, even as they cling closely to their mothers who themselves are supported in this gentle, attentive space. I chatted through interpreters and play with the women and children and understood the emerging possibility of joy also requires a physical space.

There’s a room set aside for counselling, where Rohingya women who are among the more than 500,000 refugees who’ve fled Myanmar can recount their harrowing stories of survival. At this point, I suppose I could tell you yet another shocking story of man’s inhumanity to woman, but the important thing is that UNFPA and other humanitarian partners are providing places where women can feel safe and maybe, just maybe, come back from the inner hell of their experiences.

Image: UNFPA / Veronica Pedrosa 

Women and girls can rest here and be referred to support services, including health care, psychosocial support and counselling, including professional case management for survivors of gender-based violence.

Most of the counsellors are themselves Rohingya refugees at the 10 Women Friendly Spaces the UNFPA has set up in Cox’s Bazar. I spoke to three who told me how much they’d learnt and appreciated the opportunity to help other people. But the need for this and all aid remains staggering given the sheer scale of the refugee influx.

If you’ll excuse a pop culture reference, there’s a song by the British band Massive Attack that comes to mind.


This girl I know needs some shelter

She don't believe anyone can help her

And you can't change the way she feels

But you could put your arms around her

I know you want to live yourself

But could you forgive yourself

If you left her just the way

You found her

I stand in front of you

I'll take the force of the blow



For women who have lost everything - homes, families, livelihoods and dignity - they know here that they have each other.

Let’s get their backs.