Every morning, 20-year-old Gulbahar rushes to finish her housework and cook for her family so she can spend more time at the Safe Space for Women and Girls, a women-only space supported by Unicef at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
The safe space, she says, is more than just a respite from the harsh conditions in the camp (and the tiny shelter she lives in). In that female-only space, Gulbahar is being empowered and equipped with vocational skills that she never thought she’d have the chance to acquire.
“I can write my own name now,” she says, beaming with pride.
“In Myanmar, I didn’t get a chance to go to school. I never thought I would be able to learn anything but at the Safe Space, I am learning to read and write. I also learnt tailoring and I want to teach other Rohingya women to sew so that they can earn money for themselves,” she shares.
Gulbahar and her family fled their village in Rakhine, Myanmar following attacks by the Burmese military in September 2017. Although Myanmar is home, her life there was fraught with danger.
“In Myanmar, we were deprived of many things. We (women) couldn’t move around freely without fearing for our safety. I wasn’t allowed to study. Our only concern was survival and escaping violence,” she shares.
Now, Gulbahar lives in a cramped shelter made from bamboo and tarp with her husband, two children (her daughter is five and her son, two) and her in-laws.
“There really isn’t much to do in the camp and it is very hot in the shelter during the day. At least in the Safe Space, I get to learn new things. I see all these women (aid workers) at the centre and I think that if I had an education, I too could be like them. I want my daughter to have a better life than me. I want her to be educated and to be somebody when she grows up,” she says, adding that she has registered her daughter in one of Unicef’s learning centres in the camp.
“I want her to have better opportunities than I had,” says Gulbahar.
A place for women
There are 13 Safe Spaces for Women and Girls (SSWG) at the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. They are recreational centres set up just for women and adolescent girls to rest or be referred to support services, including health care, psycho-social support and counselling as well as case management for survivors of gender-based violence.
“It’s a place where they can relax and feel safe. There are also vocational training in handicraft and tailoring for women to learn a skill. In the Rohingya culture, women can’t really move about freely without the fear of being harassed,” explains Unicef spokesperson Karen Reidy, who is based in the Unicef field office in Cox’s Bazar.
“It is not common for women to have jobs and many have not had the opportunity to learn.”
For adolescent girls, the safe space literally keeps them from being solicited for marriage.
“Child marriage is a big issue in the Rohingya community and also in the Bangladeshi community in the Cox’s Bazar area where more than 50% of girls under 18 are married. Poverty is the main driver for child marriages … families are already struggling to survive and if their daughters are married off, they have one less mouth to feed.
“Once the girls reach puberty, they start attracting a lot of attention. And so, some stay in the shelters to avoid being harassed. In the Safe Spaces, they can socialise without fear,” explains Reidy.
Almost a million Rohingya refugees live in a cluster of overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar and 52% of these are women and children. While the Rohingya are safe from the violence they faced in Myanmar, women and girls are still vulnerable to violence at the camps.
Gender-based violence, child marriages and trafficking are some of the very real risks that women and girls face in the crowded camps.
Intimate partner violence, sexual violence, physical abuse, rape, child marriages, the denial of resources to women … these are all very rampant and these women don’t know what to do about it.
So far, 490 girls and 12, 386 Rohingya refugees (75% of them female) have received support on issues related to gender based violence in the camps through initiatives by the Safe Spaces.
“The Rohingya men are often roaming around because they can’t work and as a result, they are frustrated and take it out on their wives. But the women don’t understand what gender-based violence is and they don’t know what to do. In fact, in the beginning the women were silent. They were not sharing their stories.
“But after some time, when they felt safe in this space, they started to open up and shared their stories of trauma with us,” says Unicef Child Protection Officer Richa Biswas who manages one of the Safe Spaces in the Kutupalong Camp, said to be the largest refugee camp in the world.
There is a counselling room in a discreet corner of the Safe Space for Women and Girls where women who have or are experiencing gender-based violence can get help.
“These women have been traumatised and the last thing we want is for them to be singled out as victims of violence. We set the room apart so that they can have privacy and feel comfortable enough to reach out for help,” explains Richa adding that the centre welcomes, on average, 70 women a day.
Help for young mothers
Senoura, a 22-year-old mother sits inside the Nutrition Centre at the Kutupalong Camp, waiting to see the doctor about her baby, Kurban Ali, who has been crying through the night for the last week or so.
“He starts crying in the middle of the night. I stopped breastfeeding him because I didn’t have enough milk for him and I have been feeding him snack that I buy from the market. But I think he is not getting enough food and I am worried. I don’t know what to do when he cries at night,” says Senoura who is four months pregnant with her second child.
Her husband hasn’t got a job and instead, has married a second wife and is hardly around to help her with their baby,
“He just roams around the camp and doesn’t come back every night as he has another wife. He doesn’t care about me anymore,” says Senoura, resigned. “It is hard but what other choice do I have. I am trying to do my best for my baby.”
The Nutrition Centre offers medical and counselling services for young mothers and pregnant women. Maternal and infant health remains an ongoing concern in the camps around Cox’s Bazar. The nutrition centres, through their outreach programmes, have managed to treat and reduce the number of children with severe and acute malnutrition, the numbers are still high – presently about 25,000 children under the age of five are being treated for severe and acute malnutrition.
“We have reduced the number of cases but it is very difficult because there is a lot of poverty in the camp. People don’t have dietary diversity and are mostly dependent on food aid. Mostly, their diet consists of rice, lentils, olive oil, which they in their food rations. Some will use whatever little money they might have have for vegetables in the market but not all the families have money,” says Reidy.
Unicef has 56 Outpatient Therapeutic Programmes (OTPs) that have reached 144, 383 children. Community volunteers are a big part of the programme and play a huge role in raising awareness among refugee families about getting help for their malnourished children.
“Community volunteers patrol the camps and literally go door-to-door to try and identify infants and young children who are underweight and malnourished. This is important because if undetected, severe malnutrition can have long-term effects on a child’s mental and physical development and if untreated, can result in death,” says Reidy.
Noor Begum, 25, has been in the camp for two years but hadn’t visited the Nutrition Centre until a community volunteer came to her home and told her that her baby was malnourished.
“In Myanmar, we used to cultivate our own food. We had our own land and we had more than enough to survive. Here, we barely have enough to eat and we have to depend on the food rations,” says Noor Begum, tearing as she cradles her seven-month old baby, Asia Begum, with one arm and soothes her three-year-old son Asmat Ullah with her other hand.
At the Nutrition Centre, children who are malnourished are treated and families are advised on how they can feed their children better. But a large percentage of refugees remain highly dependent on short-term aid and are living in precarious conditions in the camps. Unless the living conditions of the families improve, children will continue to need treatment for malnourishment, adolescents will remain at risk of early marriage and trafficking, and women remain vulnerable to violence.
“We are safe here but what is the future for my children here in this camp where we have nothing. We have no control of our lives and are living day to day. I am always worried for my children. Please tell our story and help us go home,” says Noor Begum.
Unicef needsUS$152.5 mil (RM628mil) to meet the lifesaving and humanitarian-development needs of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi host communities. This includes the provision of essential nutrition, health, WASH, protection and education services. Unicef Malaysia hopes to raise RM1 million throughout the month of Ramadan to support the agency’s work in the refugee camp.