SEATTLE, Washington — The Rohingya are a persecuted Muslim minority ethnic group from the Rakhine state on the west coast of Myanmar. Due to the extensive persecution of the Rohingya by the Myanmar government, U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, describes the ethnic group as “one of, if not the most discriminated people in the world.” Rohingya women, in particular, face health concerns due to the displacements and persecutions.
Rohingya Persecutions in Myanmar
Over the past several years, the persecution of the Rohingya gained significant international attention due to the most recent wave of violence in 2017. Nevertheless, the oppression of the Rohingya is not a new phenomenon and the Myanmar government has carried out violence against the group for decades.
As stateless people at constant risk of persecution, many Rohingya have fled to neighboring countries to seek refuge. Receiving countries include India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia but Bangladesh receives more Rohingya refugees than all other countries combined. Located immediately to the west of Myanmar, the Bangladeshi region of Cox’s Bazar hosts about 860,000 Rohingya in various refugee camps. In fact, the largest refugee camp in the world is a Rohingya refugee camp located in this region in Bangladesh.
General Health Concerns
Due to the group’s statelessness and marginalization, the Rohingya face many obstacles in receiving medical care both within and outside of Myanmar. Since the Myanmar government does not grant the Rohingya citizenship, the state also denies the group access to state-sponsored healthcare.
In Bangladesh, due to the poor conditions and overcrowding within the refugee camps, Rohingya experience a myriad of health problems. Many of these health risks stem from insufficient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services. With few latrines as well as very limited access to safe drinking water, the possibility of communicable disease outbreaks constantly looms over the Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh.
The geographical location of Cox’s Bazar poses many threats to the health and safety of the Rohingya living there. This region of Bangladesh experiences a monsoon season from June to October that causes overwhelming floods and therefore negatively impacts WASH services while also limiting access to humanitarian groups providing aid.
Furthermore, given the ongoing persecution and most recent Rohingya genocide in 2017, mental health struggles have a significant impact on the Rohingya. Many Rohingya experience flashbacks, depression, schizophrenia, substance addiction and more. While explicit violence against the Rohingya has decreased over the past several years, the decades of trauma have nonetheless created long-term psychological harm.
Health Concerns for Rohingya Women
Rohingya women are a particularly vulnerable group as they face various challenges regarding sexual and reproductive health as well as gender-based violence. According to a report documenting health challenges of the Rohingya residing in Bangladesh, at the end of 2018 more than 75% of births occurred at home and not in a health facility. Furthermore, thousands of lactating and pregnant women experienced malnutrition. Beyond reproductive care for mothers, children and newborns also do not receive sufficient medical care that is essential for their development.
In addition to these health concerns, Rohingya women experience significant trauma as a result of methodical rapes carried out by the Myanmar military. In August and September of 2017 when the most recent Rohingya genocide occurred, the military and police forces used mass rapes as a tool of ethnic cleansing. Since the Rohingya Muslim culture stigmatizes rape victims to a large extent, the community often casts aside survivors of sexual violence. Therefore, survivors not only experience trauma from sexual violence but also ongoing exclusion from their community as a result of their victimization.
Women in the Bangladeshi refugee camps report that Rohingya men also commit acts of sexual and gender-based violence against women living there. Not only do women experience violence in their home country but also in the camps designed to provide them with protection and security.
Organizations Assist Rohingya Women
While Rohingya women continue to suffer various threats to their wellbeing, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) that specializes in providing maternal and reproductive healthcare has stepped in. In collaboration with the UNFPA, the Bangladeshi government implemented a midwifery diploma program that provides life-saving maternity and childbirth care.
However, the UNFPA-supported maternity center does more than just provide care for mothers, it also teaches women about their reproductive rights and family planning. For many women, the first sexual and reproductive education they have ever received comes from the educators and midwives working within the refugee camps.
Furthermore, UNICEF created 15 Safe Spaces for Women and Girls within Cox’s Bazar to provide group counseling, psychosocial support, education, skills training and more. While UNICEF initially created these Safe Spaces specifically for Rohingya women, now about 20% of those visiting the centers are local Bangladeshi women. Therefore, the Safe Spaces also serve the purpose of connecting women and girls from different communities as well as facilitating culture sharing.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, UNICEF anticipated increased instances of gender-based violence occurring within households. In order to combat this, volunteers from Safe Spaces has begun to conduct home visits to raise awareness about gender-based violence response services as well as to check in to ensure women’s safety. Not only do such visits help address gender-based violence but it also helps inform refugees of how they can protect themselves and others from COVID-19.
The Future of Rohingya Women’s Healthcare
The work of organizations such as UNICEF and the UNFPA has had a remarkable impact on the wellbeing of Rohingya women residing in Bangladesh. Specifically, programs such as the Safe Spaces for Women and Girls have received very positive feedback from Rohingya and Bangladeshi women alike.
Nevertheless, due to the sheer size of the Rohingya refugee population and the location of some Rohingya communities in Cox’s Bazar, many do not have access to life-saving medical care and education. Since the marginalization of the Rohingya by the Myanmar government has not ceased, the need for women’s healthcare in Bangladesh will likely continue for years to come. Therefore, the expansion of services such as Safe Spaces and the midwifery diploma program is essential in guaranteeing that life-saving care and education reach all Rohingya women and girls.
– Alanna Jaffee