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As the minority Rohingya people flee persecution in Myanmar, none face greater hardship and suffering than Rohingya women. By Imran Mohammad.

The plight of Rohingya women

Rohingya refugees Nur Kalima, 18 (left), and Mubaraka Begum, 15. The teenagers fled their homeland after being sexually assaulted by the Myanmar military and are now in a makeshift camp in Bangladesh.
Credit: DANNY REARDON

I write this as a Rohingya man, a refugee, looking at an unacknowledged reality in the upheaval of my people.

The majority of Rohingya women have never had the opportunity to express themselves. It is like their lives begin and end inside four walls. They can be made to commit to a virtual stranger in an arranged marriage, they have children and then spend the rest of their time looking after the whole family, a task at which they are more than capable. They obey their parents and husbands, and if they do not agree with a request, they are not allowed to say.

I am astounded when I see women from other countries going to school, work or travelling without a close male as chaperone. They can stand up and raise their voice for their rights. If these basic things even crossed the minds of Rohingya women, they would still only be a dream. Practising their religion, they pray five times a day. They cover their whole body 24 hours a day inside their homes and wear even more covering – a burqa or hijab – when they are outside.

It pains me to say it feels as though no one has given any thought to what is happening to thousands of Rohingya women both in their own country as well as when they have to escape their homeland. They are completely dependent on the males in their family for everything necessary in their daily life. There are hundreds of families who don’t have a male to provide them with food and other necessities. There are women from poor families for whom having a girl means they are under a curse. There are others who have been the victims of rape, who are shunned from marriage because of this.

A significant number of Rohingya women suffer enormously – especially now our whole race is under attack from ethnic cleansing by the brutal Myanmar regime – yet they have never had the opportunity to express their feelings. I have seen numerous Rohingya women whose husbands had to leave shortly after marriage because of oppression and persecution. These women, sometimes with a child, spend the rest of their lives waiting for the men to return. There is always a glimpse of hope in their heart that they will see them once again and this keeps the flame burning throughout their lives. In reality, this dream rarely comes true. The children know that their fathers are alive somewhere in the world, yet they don’t know what they look like. They have never seen each other.

These are the realities under which Rohingya women live: it brings shame to families if the women have to go to work outside their homes. There is very little chance for them to work outside because they are unable to carry out any jobs except in agriculture or as a servant in someone else’s house. There are no set hours, so they end up working anytime day or night, and their salary is three meals a day plus the equivalent of about $7 at the end of the month. In some cases the women stay with the family and don’t receive any money in exchange for the family they are working for helping them get married when they are adults. If they are older and have children, no one will give them even this type of work so they become beggars. They go through hellish situations just because there is no male to provide food for the table.

There is no support from the government. Nor from the society they live in – not because they don’t want to help these vulnerable women, but because they are struggling with daily life themselves. These women don’t want to leave the safety of their home and if they have to, anyone can do anything to them, and this is where people smugglers step in. Once they are being trafficked, they can never come back to their country as they are stateless. These are people with no understanding of the world around them.

I have seen the drastic and deplorable actions by the smugglers that take place when Rohingya women are being smuggled by boat, mostly into Bangladesh but also into Thailand and Malaysia. The women put themselves into life and death situations to seek some sort of stability in their lives. If they understood the horrendous circumstances that would confront them, they would have chosen to die in their homeland.

The worst that could happen to these women is ending up in people smugglers’ hands. Sadly, this is the reality for most of them as they can’t pay their boat expenses. As a result, many become the victims of rape by random wild, brutal people. Others end up working in rich people’s houses and it means they will do the housework for those families for the rest of their lives.

Even if they could find their voices, they would not know how to speak out. They are hidden behind the walls from the rest of the world forever in their own land as well as foreign lands. Even if they had the opportunity to talk about their terrifying experiences, they wouldn’t dare say a word in order to preserve their families’ honour, society, culture and, most notably, to protect their own life. These women can never go back to normality. This is the end of the world for them.

Thousands of Rohingya women are trapped in endless suffering. They wouldn’t have to endure these unbearable sorrows if they belonged somewhere where they could raise their concerns and fight for their fundamental human rights. They have talent but they have never had the chance to flourish or shape their lives like women who are born in a safe country and have had the opportunities to acquire an education. Sadly, no one has moved to empower these vulnerable Rohingya women.

I feel terribly ashamed to say that there is nothing much we can do to bring change for those lost behind foreign borders. However, we can rescue those who have recently managed to save their lives from the mass killing of Rohingya by the Myanmar military, which took place in August 2017. There are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children who are currently residing in the makeshift camps in Bangladesh. What I have understood by speaking to my relatives and friends is that there is no word to describe the appalling conditions in those camps. The people trapped there appreciate the support, love and solidarity they have received from many countries, especially Bangladesh. But what they need is to be resettled in a safe country instead of being repatriated to the land where they have been oppressed for decades. A place where there would be education for boys and girls.

One of my strongest desires is to see all Rohingya become educated. For this to become reality we need to work together.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 7, 2018 as "Without support". Subscribe here.

Imran Mohammad
is a Rohingya refugee who was held on Manus Island for four years. He learnt English while in detention.

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