6 Minutes To Read

Transnational Violence and Myanmar’s Beleaguered Rohingya Women

6 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Joshua Bowes and Md. Salman Rahman argue that violence seems to be inescapable for women Rohingya refugees.

    Credit: AK Rockefeller

    The Rohingya refugee crisis is one of the most volatile humanitarian situations on the globe. More than 2.6 million people are internally displaced, including 800,000 experiencing displacement from just October 2023. At least 50,000 people have been killed, including 8,000 civilians, since the beginning of Myanmar’s national political conflict. Rohingya refugees are an ethnic minority from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, thousands of whom have migrated across the border to Bangladesh, where a large refugee camp has been established in the city of Cox’s Bazar. One million Rohingya refugees live within the Cox’s Bazar camps, half of them women, many of whom have already endured spates of gender-based violence (GBV) at the hands of the Tatmadaw in Myanmar. Within these camps, the women are subjugated to forced marriages, polygamy, and sexual violence. Such violent transnational experiences have left scores of Rohingya women powerless, with nowhere to turn. Cox’s Bazar refugees live in squalor, where prospects for social mobility and education are poor. The dearth of work has left women both vulnerable to the control of their patriarchal communities within the camps as well as to human traffickers and smugglers in a system that dually renders them prisoners.

    Sexual violence is entrenched within Myanmar’s history, where brutality against women dates back to colonial times. In their own country, the Rohingya minority have faced discrimination for decades, persecuted for their Muslim faith. The interrelation of gender and religious-based violence in Myanmar is both a catalyst and a result of inter-state conflict. In a contemporary context, the Rohingya are labelled as ‘Bengalis’ and accused by radical Buddhist priests of conspiring to convert all of Myanmar to Islam. The violent atrocities carried out by the Burmese armed forces were the first challenge Rohingya women were forced to flee in their native Myanmar. As denounced by the United Nations Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, three years of brutal genocidal violence have culminated in a great amount of evidence against those culpable, including that which points to rape and atrocities against women. As reported in 2023, Security Force Monitor found 64% of senior Burmese military officers led campaigns of torture, murder, rape, and enforced disappearances. Activists in Myanmar proclaim that the army junta uses rape and other sexual violence as a means of quelling opposition groups. On 1 March 2021, a group of junta troops raided the village of Tar Taing in the Sagaing region, killing at least 17, including gang-raping three women before shooting and killing them. The heinous attack was viewed as an intensification of violence carried out by the Burmese armed forces.

    Sexual Violence, Familial Repression, and Social Restriction: A First-Hand View

    One of the authors visited a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Visiting the camp, the author was fortunate to speak to several refugees, including women. Tania, a young Rohingya girl, was trafficked to Cox’s Bazar under false pretenses of work and forced into prostitution. She said, “The job offer was a scam; they brought me here and pushed me into such a situation.” Tania is not alone; hundreds of young girls have been forcibly displaced to Cox’s Bazar. A well-documented Al-Jazeera investigation revealed a number of underage girls were sent to India, Malaysia, and Thailand through the International Human Trafficking Network, working behind the shadows across the camps.

    In the Rohingya community, traditions have long isolated women from equal participation. Women cannot make decisions in family matters and are socially restricted to staying under the veil. Fatima Bunno, a camp worker, remarked, “It’s common here and has become normal. Everyone, including women, believes men will be in charge. When it comes to common matters, women are never prioritized.” In the camps, rape and domestic violence against women are alarmingly common and deeply horrifying. When a woman is raped, the warped social dynamics of the camps often favor the rapist. A small sum of money is given to the victims, and the issue is considered resolved. However, the ordeal doesn’t end there. After being raped, victims face severe humiliation within the camp, frequently pushing many women into prostitution or suicide.

    In 2017, nearly one million Rohingya fled military atrocities in Myanmar. Among them, thousands of women were raped and then killed by the Myanmar military. Those who survived the rapes and escaped death found refuge in camps over the Bangladeshi border, where they continue to suffer. Family and society no longer view them the same way. In the camps, they are treated as “evil spirits.” Speaking with Narifa Begum, a survivor of the horrors in Rakhine, she shared her experience of life in the camp: “I am with family, but they treat me as if I am guilty of being raped. They no longer treat me the same way they treat my other siblings. If we are isolated within our families, imagine how society perceives us. We cannot get married or become someone’s first wife.”

    Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and, therefore, has no obligation to provide comprehensive support for Rohingya refugees. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arranged to shelter millions of refugees despite Bangladesh already being one of the most densely populated countries in the world. To protect Rohingya women, the Bangladesh government established a Camp-In-Charge (CIC) cell to ensure victims receive proper justice. The CIC is a body of government officials dedicated to ensuring justice in the event of any crimes. Victims initially reach out through hotline numbers provided by NGOs. After making contact, victims file a written complaint against the perpetrator. These complaints are then forwarded by the NGOs to the CIC. If the CIC finds the complaint to be valid, they proceed to administer justice. However, due to societal pressures from within the Rohingya community, many women are often too fearful to stand against gender-based domestic violence.

    The stigma of rape has left many Rohingya women and young girls dishonored by their families, reducing them to a state of disposability with little prospect of recovery. The brutal experiences endured by the Rohingya people constitute an understudied and underreported humanitarian catastrophe, demanding a coordinated response from the international community. However, no effective actions have been taken to pressure the perpetrators in Myanmar’s junta government. Despite seven years having gone by, the United Nations had weaker responses to Tatmadaw and has failed to recognize the atrocities as genocide or dispatch a peacekeeping mission to Rakhine. In this regard, the United States, in its recognition of genocide, introduced the “Burma Act” to sanction the Myanmar junta and seize their illegitimate assets abroad. These measures appear to be effective in punishing the military government, but China and Russia continue to thwart the repatriation process. Within the Security Council, Beijing and Moscow have consistently abandoned their moral responsibilities by endorsing Myanmar’s authoritarian regime.

    However, a coordinated response from the international community holds the promise of transforming the current negative trajectory. If European nations join the US in recognizing the genocide and imposing sanctions on the perpetrators, it could strengthen accountability and pave the way for justice. Additionally, the United Nations could initiate a peace-building mission in Rakhine State to facilitate repatriation efforts. Yet, the incessant geopolitical rivalries among world leaders have shattered the dreams of millions of refugees, leaving them in a state of despair over whether they will ever return to their homes and reclaim the dignity and fundamental civil rights they deserve.

    On the Interview Process

    Mr. Salman, living near Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camp, sought entry as a SAFN researcher but faced authorization challenges. After contacting defense officials, he was granted access under the condition of anonymity. On the 28th of May 2024, he visited Kutupalong Camp with a state official and a UNHCR researcher, interviewing housewives and camp workers from UNHCR and BLAST about the conditions of Rohingya women. In the evening, through an extensive effort with a local network, Salman’s team found Tania (pseudonym), a young Rohingya girl who was lured to Cox’s Bazar under false pretenses of work and eventually forced into prostitution. Though Rohingya women being forced into prostitution is not uncommon, many in the camp are unwilling to be interviewed. In Bangladesh, the Rohingya people are not permitted to partake in any work outside the camp. If state authorities become aware of any cases like this, those deemed to be offenders are immediately arrested. Therefore, it was risky for refugees to disclose the details of their lives.

    Joshua Bowes is a Research Associate with The Millennium Project’s South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) in Washington, D.C. (X: @josh_bowes1, Instagram: @josh_bowes1)

    Md. Salman Rahman is a Research Assistant with The Millennium Project’s South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) in Washington, D.C. (X: @SalmanHRahman7)

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