Since the outbreak of violence in August 2017, over 700,000 Rohingya people have fled violence in Myanmar, to seek safety in camps like Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Most of the refugees are women and children.
ActionAid are on the ground in Bangladesh, delivering life-saving aid and long-term support.
We know violence against women and girls increases during all emergencies, especially during displacement and conflict. Even when they reach refugee camps, women and girls are more at risk of forms of violence including mass rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, forced ‘marriages’ and being forced to offer sex in exchange for food or shelter.
That's why ActionAid takes a women-led, women-centred approach to our work.
Working closely with women-led committees in the camps, we're supporting over 66,400 Rohingya refugees. Many of these refugees have survived rape and violence, have seen family members killed, and have traveled for many days on foot to seek safety.
Below are some of the stories of the Rohingya women in Bangladesh, told in their own words.
Arifa’s story: “I can’t sleep at night”
“Since this centre opened, I come here every day because I can feel peace here, I can wash myself and I can talk to friends here and sleep properly.
At home I can’t sleep because when I close my eyes I see all the things that happened to me and my husband at home – they killed my husband. There are lots of women here to make conversation with and new friends to make.
I have no husband, no parents, but I have two children. I came here with them.
I still don’t know exactly what happened to my husband. In the evening [of the violence] we went near the forest. There was a canal and boat men from another village, and they helped us to cross. It was a nine-day journey.
The experience of living in the camp is difficult to explain. I heard something from people that sexual violence is happening to lone women, which is why I feel afraid at night when I’m alone with 2 children.
I feel a little peace here in the centre, but at home every second is really every hard because I remember everything that happened in Myanmar.”
Kolima’s story: “I come here for peace”
“When I feel tense or very sad and upset I come here for peace. When I come here I talk with the counsellors and try to manage my problems.
I have no husband, I’m living only for my children, my two sons, aged 10 and 7. My husband was killed seven months ago. I needed to pay a lot of money per person for the boat, but I didn’t have lots of money but I paid the boatmen in gold – I gave him a gold ring.
I’m really worried here because I have no husband and I live alone. I don’t feel safe in the camps. I feel very afraid at night. And I’m worried about the monsoons – twice my roof has blown off when it’s raining very heavily. I don’t have any friends outside the centre to share problems with. But I have lots of friends here, which is why I like coming here.”
Anu Ara’s story: “If they respect us”
“We’re learning lots here, like how to stop early marriage for our daughters. We are getting some training, like how to keep safe in the floods in the monsoon, lots of hygiene information, and how we keep clean.
It’s not good for our daughters to get married before they’re 18 – it means they can die while giving birth. So we decided that we won’t let our daughters get married before 18. Before we had training, they used to get married aged 13-15, sometimes at 12.
I got married aged 14 and I have borne 12 children. It was very harmful for me having lots of children. I know how difficult it can be to look after loads of children. It’s really hard. Making the crossing with so many children was difficult – my two young sons were vomiting a lot from seasickness.
We don’t want to go back to Myanmar without justice and security. If they respect us as Rohingya then we want to go back.”
Dr Fatema’s story: The camp doctor
“I’ve worked in this camp for 8 months, but I’ve been working in Cox’s Bazar for 10 years. When the crisis started in August last year, I worked 7.30am-6pm every day, 7 days a week for three months. I saw 80 people a day.
At the beginning, most of the women came with reproductive problems because they had to walk a long time when they were crossing the border. Sometimes they were a few weeks’ pregnant, but when walking on this journey they were bleeding and bleeding and it turned out they miscarried. There are also many rape cases.
Most of the women I speak to were gang-raped in Myanmar. When I get these cases, I talk with my colleagues and provide them with dignity kits [kits containing essential items for women and girls like soap, fresh underwear, and sanitary products].
Non-stop bleeding is the most common sign. Sometimes I have seen women who have been gang-raped before the rapists burnt them and cut them.
To focus myself and try to hold back my tears, sometimes I try to remember my favourite films, or think about fun moments with my friends.
I used to listen to many stories from the women we help here. Now I try to forget and start afresh with the next patient because if I don’t, then I can’t help them. It is my job to help them.”
Sajeda’s story: The tailor’s daughter
“I’ve been working here for three months teaching sewing. In Myanmar, my father was a tailor so I learned from him.
I’m teaching [the women and girls here] how to make a three-piece Bangladeshi dress, because they say ‘now we are here, maybe we should dress the same as the women here’.
I’ve been teaching this group of girls for two months. They’ve changed from before. They are now very confident and very willing to learn, and they ask how to learn new things.
I’ve been living here nine months, and it took 12 days to cross the border on my journey. I am speechless, there is no way for me to explain how I crossed the border. It was very very terrible. I don’t know how Allah helped me and how I’m still alive.
I feel very sad for my country, even if I get everything I need here. If I feel happy once, then I feel sad three times for my country. I lost my mother at home and I am really not happy here. I really want to go back.”
Hajera’s story: “Sometimes I feel very angry”
“My favourite food at home was fresh fruit – we used to make juices from them. But we can’t do that here. There is not enough food, and no way to earn money.
Sometimes my children cry for food. I really feel very bad when my children ask me for things, like ‘mama, give me new clothes’ or ‘give me food’.
It’s very hot here. Sometimes I really feel very angry. When I go home here, there are no lights and no fans. In Myanmar I had a fan, but now I can only get that when I come here [to the ActionAid women-friendly space]. I feel upset and angry – why are we here? What was our fault?
I cry when I feel angry. I try to remember it’s just bad luck – this is why we’re in this situation, why this is happening. Without doing anything wrong and without harming other people, we have suffered a lot.
Sometimes we forget everything when we see the affection, love, and care [that we’ve been shown] by other countries. At least we are able to live.”