Text: Pernille Fenger, Chief of UNFPA Nordic Office
Almost 700,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived to Cox’s Bazar since August 2017. In April, according to the available data, an estimated 60,000 women affected by the crisis are pregnant, of which 10,500 will give birth in the next few months, and 1,500 are at risk of life-threatening complications.
Many of them have witnessed horrors and suffered unspeakable traumas: burning of their villages, sexual violence, and the loss of family members. According to the UN Security Council Report of the Secretary-General on conflict-related sexual violence, also called “the blacklist”, the widespread threat and use of sexual violence was part of the Myanmar Armed Forces’ strategy. Sexual violence worked as a tool to humiliate, terrorize, and collectively punish the Rohingya community, forcing them to flee their homelands and to prevent their return. UN Security Council is demanding an end to the excessive use of military force and the creation of conditions for safe return of the refugees. However, rape is a powerful tool. It drives traumatised victims from their homes and also makes them too afraid to return.
The question is: how are women protected, supported, and empowered during a humanitarian crisis?
Women and girls are at the centre of UNFPA’s humanitarian response
One of the organizations working in Cox´s Bazar district is UNFPA, United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations’ reproductive health- and rights agency. With the funding from donors, like the Government of Finland, which last year was the eight biggest contributor to UNFPA, the organisation covers the basic needs of women and girls by supporting midwives, and by providing mobile reproductive health clinics, safe places, and dignity kits.
From August 2017 to March 2018, UNFPA has distributed 115,000 dignity kits. It is a kit, which includes basic supplies, which most of us take for granted, such as soap, detergent, sanitary pads, towels, underwear, clothing, sandals, and a flashlight and a whistle for increased safety. These kits help women and girls maintain their hygiene, and thus to go about their daily lives with less fear of facing stigma or violence. Having appropriate clothing is essential in walking outdoors. When walking in the dark, having a flashlight and a whistle are necessary for security.
UNFPA staff is also organizing information sessions about health and hygiene, where breaking the taboos often associated with menstruation is important. They are also explaining how to best use the items in dignity kits, like toothbrush, soap, and sanitary pads, to help refugees make the most of the kits’ contents.
During crises, women do not stop getting pregnant or giving birth, but they may lose access to sexual and reproductive health care, including family planning, antenatal services, and safe delivery. Lack of these services can be fatal. In fact, being pregnant and giving birth are the leading causes of death, disease, and disability among displaced women and girls of childbearing age. UNFPA is supporting midwives and reproductive health clinics to ensure that women have the opportunity to give birth with skilled care and access to antenatal services. However, needs exceed the available service: the UNFPA monthly situation report from March 2018 estimates that only 22 percent of births occur in facilities with skilled midwives.
UNFPA supports Women Friendly Spaces or “Shanti Khana”, peaceful havens, as the Rohingya women are calling them. This is a place where women can rest and feel safe, and seek support services, including health care and psychosocial support for survivors of gender-based violence. “Because of this safe space, I rested and was able to breastfeed my children”, said one woman at a women-friendly space. Her journey to Bangladesh was harrowing. “I lost my husband and one child”, she explained. “Here I’ve received mental health support, and have a place to talk about my suffering on this journey.”
Social activities such as singing, dancing, and games are helping women and girls rebuild a sense of community. But most importantly, it is a place where they know they are not alone, and they can feel safe. One woman, who refused to speak about her experience at first, eventually began to feel less traumatised after finding UNFPA´s Women Friendly Space.
While UNFPA, other UN agencies, NGOs, and the Government of Bangladesh, are working to fulfil the needs and meet the human rights of the Rohingya, their next concern is already around the corner. Heavy rains and possible cyclones are approaching the camps and settlements. Actually early rains of the monsoon season have already set in at Cox’s Bazar. You can hear when the lashing winds and pounding rains hits the tarpaulin of the tent. With the rain comes flooding, mudslides and water-borne diseases, which will put the women and girls to an even more vulnerable situation. To be safe, thousands of them need to be relocated to safer ground, again.