Katie Arnold is a freelance journalist covering human rights and environmental issues in Central and Southeast Asia. She works primarily with a camera, but sometimes with a pen, and can be found on Twitter @kate_arno.
"The military came in the night and ripped the clothes off young girls aged just 12 or 13 — they touched their bodies right in front of us,” Mahmooda Begum says. She is explaining why she fled her village in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State. “Our women and our girls were not safe.”
The U.N. says the majority of female refugees have either experienced or witnessed multiple incidents of sexual assault, rape, gang‑rape or murder in Myanmar.
The sprawling refugee camps offer little solace to those suffering from severe trauma — their narrow streets filled with the cries of hungry children and grieving families. But a derelict house on the outskirts of Shamlapur refugee camp, in the Cox’s Bazar district, has become a safe haven for victims of gender-based violence.
Inside the women-friendly space, an inconspicuous building with bare walls, a group of women are huddled around a board game. As the game reaches its climax, they let out a wave of laughter, a rare sound in the camp.
Set up by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the center is run by a team of Rohingya volunteers, including Begum, whose playful attitude draws smiles from even the most timid attendee. When another refugee wants to talk about her horrific experiences in northern Rakhine State, Begum listens, her hand resting comfortingly on the woman’s shoulder.
“I like this work,” Begum says. “There are thousands upon thousands of raped women here … [they] have no other place to go. So when they come here they feel happy.”
The women-friendly space makes counselors and psychotherapists available for anyone who needs professional treatment, but many prefer to share their trauma with fellow refugees.
“It’s really shocking the things we hear and when they tell us these kinds of stories, we feel pain.”
More than half of the incidents of gender-based violence reported to UNFPA are of sexual assault,but centers such as this also support victims of domestic abuse, forced marriage and child marriage.
“When we go [to the women-friendly space] we can laugh, play games, make our children happy, get treatment and talk to the other women sitting with us,” says Amena Khatu, an 18-year-old mother of one.
Like many Rohingya girls, Khatu was forced to marry early to alleviate her family of the financial burden of a daughter. Unable to find a space inside the refugee camps, the young mother now lives with her husband and child in a one-room shack by the side of the road.
“I feel a lot happier and relaxed [at the women-friendly space], that’s why I like going there,” she says.
UNFPA says it has reached more that 10,000 new arrivals at Cox’s Bazar through nine women-friendly spaces, including 900 women who report being targets of gender-based violence. But the true number is estimated to be much higher. Conservative cultural values prevent many survivors of gender-based violence from seeking help, because they are scared that it will bring shame upon their family.
To meet the needs of refugee Rohingya women, UNFPA hopes to raise $13.74million by the end of February 2018. With three months left to meet that target, the organization has received only 37 percent of that money.
Earlier this year, the United States cut all its funding to UNFPA by invoking the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which prohibits foreign aid to any organization the administration determines is involved in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization. UNFPA refutes the allegation. In 2016, the U.S. contributed $69 million to UNFPA; now the organization relies on other governments and private donors for future funding.
“One of the issues is that people don’t automatically think about sexual, reproductive or women’s health as being an important aspect of an emergency,” says Veronica Pedrosa, spokeswoman for UNFPA in Bangladesh.
With many donors failing to recognize the importance of psychosocial care, it falls to the Rohingya community to offer survivors of gender-based violence the support they need. And women such as Mahmooda Begum have risen to the challenge.
“Even I don’t feel good when I am alone at home,” Begum says, as the sun sets on another day at the women-friendly space in Shamlapur camp. “But now that I come here regularly, and more and more women are joining, I feel happy.”