United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports 65.6 million individuals have been forcibly displaced worldwide as of 2017 due to conflict, violence, and violations of human rights making the global refugee crisis insufferable. According to international law, a refugee is defined as someone who lives outside his or her country of nationality or usual residence, who is able to show a well-founded fear of persecution on specific grounds, and who lacks protection from their country. And a Stateless person is someone who is not considered as a national by any state. UNHCR estimates that there are ‘over 10 million’ stateless persons in the world (UNHCR, 2017). Rohingyas are one of the most oppressive minorities around the world. They are living as a stateless in Myanmar, not considered as nationals by the government. And to avoid persecution and violence by the government as well as the local population in Myanmar they have been escaping to neighboring countries, mostly in Bangladesh since 1960 and make them one of the largest refugee bulks of the world. Thus whether being stateless and refuge, the Rohingya are discriminated on both sides of the border.
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The image of the forcibly displaced population, whether it is the Rohingya refuges or the Tamil refugees, is always a helpless and uprooted woman. Women are vulnerable to gender-based violence in any conflicts, war or refugee crisis. And also that women experience refugeehood in a particularly gendered way. Gender-based violence is one of the significant factors in any humanitarian crisis and refugee camps (O’Brien, 2017). In any humanitarian emergencies, women are exposed to risks of abuse and exploitation because of the deeply rooted gender norms which discriminate and disempower women.
Rohingya, lived in Northern Rakhihne State (NRS), are an ethnic and religious minority group. Myanmar governments are executing apparent and deadly genocide against the Rohingya community for years. Women and girls in Mayanmar, who are vulnerable in term of ethnicity, religious minority and gender, experienced gender based violence. According to Human watch report, Rohingya women have been subjected to abduction; rape, including gang rape, and other sexual violence, forced marriage and sexual slavery with degrading behavior in Myanmar by the government, the army (the Tatmadaw) and non-Rohingya local communities. A significant number of them fled to Bangladesh to avoid dreadful act of violence but that make them even more vulnerable in terms of their refugee status. More or less, all around the world the refugee women are experiencing gender based violence in the most atrocious way. In addition, in refugee camps they started experiencing violence from their own kin as a result of the broken family and community structure and previously existing gender inequalities in such patriarchic setting.
Although, there were a significant number of studies have been done previously on rohingya issues, but studies focusing on gender based violence on women are very scarce. In this thesis, I therefore aim to portray the gender-based violence experienced by the Rohingya women before and after arriving in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Rohingyas, resided in Northern Rakhine State (NRS) of Myanmar, are an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority group. Rohingyas are stateless after they have denied citizenship according to the 1982 citizenship law, which is the main cause for vulnerability as they lack basic rights and protection provided by the law (Hutchinson, 2018). However, the Rohingya people claim their origin as a resident of NRS (previously known as Arakan state) for more than a thousand year. Statelessness is the reason for Rohingyas to live a stressful daily life as this is related to their sense of belongings as well as access to basic human rights (Riley et al., 2017). The Rohingyas has been experienced that persecution for two centuries and has fled Myanmar in cycles (Miton et al., 2017). Before the British colonization in Burma, the Rohingya and Arakanese lived in peach. The rift started in 1825 during the first Anglo-Burmese war, which eventually got deeper during Second World War when the Rohingyas took side with the British, while the Arakanese declared their loyalty with the Japanese. A total of 100,000 Rohingya were killed and 50,000 exiled towards the border to East Bengal both by the communalist (Buddhist) Rakhine and the Burma Independence Army.
After Burma received independence from Britain in 1948, the denial of the Rohingyas citizenship persisted. In 1978, 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh due to the ongoing oppression, violence, and arrest. And after just three years, Burma passed citizenship law which made 800,000 Rohingyas stateless. However, during the military reign, the state established a number of military cantonments in the north side of Rakhine state where Muslims were living, and forcefully took their land without any compensation. So, the Rohingyas finally became homeless along with stateless. Labeled as illegal residents their access to employment, education, and healthcare has been denied, even the state limit their freedom of movement and rights to get married or have children. Such extreme circumstance left Rohingyas no option other than exile to neighboring countries as refugees.
Because of the initial recognition and matched religion, Bangladesh has always been the preferred location for Rohingyas. In 1991-1992, around 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh when the democratic election failed in 1990. In 2012, the people from Rohingya minority were moved to displacement camps which are named as open-air prisons by the Amnesty International (Nordby, 2018). In August 2017, the Myanmar military reacted violently after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s (ARSA) organized an attack on police and military posts and as a result, over 600 000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh (Nordby, 2018). The Myanmar government now described ARSA as a terrorist group which led them to exclude from the peach talk even if the ARSA stated that they did not plan to impose any sharia law (Hutchinson 2018). Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize winner, leader of Myanmar has heavily criticized by the global people for the unfathomable violence against the Rohingya minority (Barany, 2018). The Myanmar leaders, on the other hand, refused to refer them as Rohingya and asked the global community to be called them Bengali. They also refused the journalists, UN and humanitarian organization unsupervised access to Rakhine state (Nordby, 2018).
From 1978 to 2018, with 40 years of continuous camps settlements, the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh currently become one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world and that inputs a huge challenge to integrate Rohingyas in a densely populated country. There are currently two government-led refugee camps for Rohingyas in the Cox’s Bazar area, one of Bangladesh’s poorest districts, where socioeconomic conditions of the host communities have further intricated finding a stable solution for the Rohingyas. Hence, the Rohingya refugees are experiencing miserable living conditions in terms of inadequate access to basic needs, exposure to violence, restricted movement, local hostility, and various forms of discriminations.
Gender-based violence is defined as ‘violence targeted to a person because of their gender, or that affects them because of their special roles or responsibilities in society’ (Benjamin and Fancy, 1998). Women experience violence differently even if both men and women are exposed to violence in conflict time. Although Women face sexual violence mostly many men also experienced it in armed conflict. Though it is necessary to remember that in most of the cases, the victim of gender-based violence is female while the male is the perpetrator.
Men and women reacted to violence differently, so has the different impact of violence. Women are usually hesitant to seek support or share after experiencing violence because of social stigma and constraints (Benjamin and Fancy, 1998 and El-Bushra, 2003). The risk of gender-based violence against women increases in conflict situations. The norms and cultural practice that stimulate gender-based discrimination and gender inequality are the main underlying cause of gender-based violence. Our deeply rooted gender norms that disempower women caused them to expose to the risks of gender-based violence in any humanitarian crisis.
The Scholars and humanitarian organizations have been acknowledged the violence against the refugee women and girls over the past twenty years. Sexual violence is a tool that frequently used in the armed conflict and incites women to flee from their country as a refugee. However, Women also exposed to sexual violence during their trips from, boarders guards, soldiers, and armed gangs. And this form of sexual violence continues in refugee camps also.
Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya became one of the largest protracted camps in the world where the Somali population has been arrived since 1990 due to the continuous fighting and barbarous circumstances (Chkam, 2016 and Agier, 2002). Ethnographic research found out that rape happened commonly in that camp both by the Ethiopian and Somali men. O’Brien stated in his book that women were engaged to ‘survival sex’ in order to ensure their own or families’ survival from hunger, stress, and displacement in Liberia, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, and Sierra Leone. Women did not practice it as a free choice rather than due to pressure to survive (O’Brien, 2017).
It has been previously documented that aid workers, peacekeepers, and community leaders were exploiting women sexually and trade food, medicine, education, reliefs for sexual favors in refugee camps. (Ferris, 2007). This report also stated Sexual abuse is related with inequalities in power relationships. The male perpetrators protect each other when they face any trial for sexual exploitations. Oxfam scandal also brought this into the day of light. The young, vulnerable girls of Haiti were sexually exploited by seven Oxfam employees along with the Haiti country manager following the earthquake in 2010 (Nordby, 2018). Following this, other humanitarian organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS’s villages state SVT acknowledged that they also receive reports regarding sexual harassment and exploitation conducted by their staffs in emergency settings. Furthermore, deployment of peacekeeping personnel and military personnel in conflict areas increase demand of sexual services which eventually results in the growth of sex industry as well as forced prostitution and human trafficking (O’Brien, 2017).
El-Bushra referred that during and after any conflict situations both men and women have to adapt to the changing environment, and women may require adjusting more than male. Some studies found a direct correlation between men’s income and domestic violence towards women in refugee communities (Akhter and Kusakabe, 2014). Men’s unemployment can have a devastating impact on women as it challenges the role of men as ‘provider’. This insecurity of men could influence them to justify their ‘masculinity’ through domestic violence or irresponsible sexual behavior (Akhter and Kusakabe, 2014).
In addition, men unemployment also increases the women’s economic burden and led them to be the family’s breadwinner. And women in refugee camps have few opportunities for generating income (Akhter and Kusakabe, 2014). But the studies on Bhutanese refugees in Nepal or the refugee women Ethiopia showed that women experience violence in the process of earning their own living from the men outside the camp as well as the men within their own family and community (Akhter and Kusakabe, 2014). This is because men’s status as a head of household gets threatened by the refugee women’s courageous attempt to participate income generation across cultural boundaries. This provokes the sense of failure and frustration in the men and leads to violence towards women. Furthermore, instability, stress, poverty during conflict increases the incidence of intimate partner violence (Nordby, 2018).
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Gender-based violence on Rohingya Women:
Gender-based violence in Myanmar:
Abductions, rape and sexual violence by the Tatmadaw: According Human rights report Women were taken into the forest and abducted, raped, gang-raped, tortured and killed by the Tatmadaw soldiers in Myanmar. Sometimes the soldiers individually or in group raped and tortured women in their homes. The report also demonstrates that if any women escape or fight back during rape, the Tatmadaw soldiers accompanied with their senior officers’ visit the survivors’ house and threaten and tortured women as well as their families. These patterns of the calculated brutality of sexual violence for decades reflect the practice of tolerance, systemic infliction and absolute impunity of Tatmadaw soldiers against the ethnic minorities (Human Rights Council, 2017).
Sexual slavery and forced marriages: There were reports on sexual slavery and forced marriages in northern Rakhine by the Tatmadaw soldiers. And United Nations reports suggest both practices may be more widespread than it is currently documented. The explanation for the underreporting is the close monitoring and movement restriction of sexual slavery victims and the lower rate of successful escapes due to the extreme physical injuries caused by severe and frequent abuse (Human Rights Council, 2017).
Discriminatory birth control regulations: To control the Muslim population growth the Myanmar governments have been applied the discriminatory two child rule which violets the “UN Convention on the Rights of the Child” for decades. This law primarily conceived and implemented by the military rulers. According to the law, the Rohingya woman has to either seek refuge in another country or seek an abortion or remain in the country and give birth to a blacklisted child if she bears more than two children(Human rights watch, 2013). But abortion is a criminal offense in Myanmar so the Rohingya woman who decides to abort has to undergo an unsafe procedure in an unlicensed facility or in a home which then endanger her life. That also explains the high maternal mortality rate among Rohingyas. Or if the women chose to deliver the baby and remain in the country, the child will be derived from any legal status. On the contrary to the Myanmar official’s political myth regarding “rapid population growth” among Rohingya’s, Harvard researchers found that Rohingya has the lowest birth rate among the Myanmar populations (Abdelkader, 2014).
Human Trafficking of Rohingya Women and Girls:
The continuous conflict and violence against Rohingya women and girls caused them vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking and allow Myanmar as a source country for traffickers. Myanmar was the United States tier 2 watch list for two consecutive years because of the failure to protect victims and prevent trafficking. Myanmar security forces have been reportedly forced Rohingya women to prostitution and sexual slavery. Accordingly, the women who successfully escaped to other countries remain accessible to human trafficking (Abdelkader, 2014).
Gender-based violence in Bangladesh:
Currently, 918,000 Rohingya refugees are living in Bangladesh and among them, 52 percent are women and girls and 16 percent are single mothers (UN women report, 2018). There are two camps for registered Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh- “Kutupalong” in Ukhia (sub-district) and “Nayapara” in Teknaf (sub-district)—from the Cox’s Bazar district. Some refugees resided in makeshift camps in surrounding areas or among the host communities as unregistered refugees. Moreover, unregistered refugees experience higher risk of violence, physical and sexual abuse, arrest, and detention and limited access to basic services (Milton et al., 2017).
Previous research identified that sexual violence and exploitation were endemic in the refugee camps and affect adversely on women as well as their families and wider communities (Pittaway, 2017). The author stated that women and girls of all ages are experience forced marriage and abduction by local villagers. But they are sent back to the camps after getting pregnant. And there were the report of prostitution inside the camp as well as trafficking young girls and women into the sex market nearby. Members of the local police, military or villagers took the women from the camps at night for sex which led the women to live in a constant fear. Some girls died during an abortion after being pregnant after rape (Pittaway, 2017).
A study conducted on Kutupalong and Nayapara, two different refugee camps in Cox Bazar area revealed that 12, 8% responded were exposed to exploitation (e.g., coerced sexual favors), 8,1% to rape (forced, unwanted sex with a stranger, acquaintance, or family member) while 6,1% witnessed sexual violence/abuse (Riley et al., 2017). In another study, Hutchinson pointed out that 58 700 Rohingya women and girls have been exposed to sexual violence which he calculated using other references (Hutchinson, 2018). Nevertheless, data from this article does not infer whether the Rohingya women experience sexual violence in the Rakhine state, during flight or in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. However, other documentation of gender-based violence against refugee leads me to reckon that the women may experience sexual violence in all three stages. Another study also confirms that women are commonly exposed to sexual assaults and harassment in the camps (Farzana, 2017). The perpetrators are men from different groups; local Bangladeshi villagers, camp authorities, security personnel, humanitarian personnel as well as other refugees.
The refugee camps, especially the protracted ones, are perfect places for those looking to exploit refugees for trafficking and forced slavery (Seltzer, 2013). Farzana believed that although documentation is very limited underground trafficking occur in these camps on a regular basis. According to BBC (2018), Rohingya children were also trafficked into different areas of Bangladesh for sexual purposes from the refugee camps. Mostly the local Bangladeshi men are responsible for this, sometimes women who act as a pimp also involve into the trafficking. The article also explained that Rohingya women are trafficking into Chittagong and Dhaka in Bangladesh, Kathmandu in Nepal and Kolkata in India. Once they reach their destination they absorbed into the systems and lost their true identities.
Rohingya women experienced gender-based violence from inside and outside of the camps. They are experiencing more intimate partner violence now compare to the past. Riley and Pittaway identified that Rohingya women suffer violence/abusing form their own family. The displacement, unemployment, boredom increase the frustration and may provoke men to perform violence. The breakdown in the traditional provider role of men may lead them to feel powerless and try to satisfy their male ego through ragged violence.
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