Rohingya crisis

When 60,000 Rohingya refugee teenage girls hide their faces

A woman dressed in a burqa walking past a man tending crops in the Kutupalong megacamp. More than 19,000 women from the camps have received counselling in connection with violence, usually from the men in their family.
A woman dressed in a burqa walking past a man tending crops in the Kutupalong megacamp. More than 19,000 women from the camps have received counselling in connection with violence, usually from the men in their family.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Madam Noor Beghum (right) with her four children and the man who took pity on them and took her family in to live together with his family, outside his home at the Kutupalong camp. Madam Beghum, who saw her husband hacked down, recounts how several s
Madam Noor Beghum (right) with her four children and the man who took pity on them and took her family in to live together with his family, outside his home at the Kutupalong camp. Madam Beghum, who saw her husband hacked down, recounts how several soldiers raped her that night in Myanmar. When she emerged from unconsciousness the next morning, she gathered her four children and escaped to Bangladesh.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Rohingya women getting medical advice from a volunteer doctor at the NGO-run BRAC clinic, which helps pregnant women at the Kutupalong megacamp. Some 48,000 women, many of whom are victims of rape or violence, are expected to give birth in the camps
Rohingya women getting medical advice from a volunteer doctor at the NGO-run BRAC clinic, which helps pregnant women at the Kutupalong megacamp. Some 48,000 women, many of whom are victims of rape or violence, are expected to give birth in the camps this year.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

They swelter inside - rape, violence an ever-present danger. Little water, few toilets are another ordeal, resulting in an overwhelming stench.

Whether it is on the treacherous slopes of the Kutupalong megacamp, in the makeshift learning centres in nearby Balukhali or on the winding paths of Nayapara, there is one face that you never see: the face of a teenage girl. It is as if she has been airbrushed from the scenery.

Between them, the camps hold more than 60,000 girls between the ages of 12 and 17. But even in this cramped, makeshift township, where shanties lean on each other and there is no place to hide, these young females have been banished from public view.

When non-governmental organisations tried to find out why no teenage girls attend a learning centre, they were told: "A girl's modesty is more important than education."

In fact, of the 117,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 24, only 2,000 attend any sort of training or educational programme and almost none of them is female.

The girls stay locked indoors, in the shanties, where the blazing sun and the clay ovens push temperatures into the 40s. "I sit under the tarpaulin and sweat," says Rukhmah, 17. "I want to step out but there are so many strangers."

The fear of strangers is not unfounded. Of the 1,922 locations that the International Organisation of Migration surveyed across all Rohingya camp settlements in Bangladesh, it found that women had been sexually assaulted at bathing points or latrines in 70 per cent of them. In more than 1,800 of these locations, the toilets were not segregated by gender.

 

That, and the shortage of water, kept these young women from bathing for days on end during the summer. "Our women smell so bad that sometimes it is hard for us to stay indoors with them," says Mr Mohd Fazal, a father of six.

The bad odours are outdoors, too, as the latrines overflow. In one block at Nayapara, there are 10 common toilets for 3,072 camp residents. Or one for every 300.

"If I want to use the toilet in the morning, I have to stand for so long that my knees hurt," says Madam Malika, 32. And if she and other women wait till night, the camp is plunged into darkness, without a single lamp to light it up. That is when most attacks take place.

Some of the women feel particularly vulnerable as there are more than 6,000 widows of last year's violence in the camps. Of every 100 households there, 10 have women who were raped by the army in Myanmar last year. Women sit and talk about rape even to strangers, but the pain has not been numbed.

Madam Noor Beghum, 30, tells you matter-of-factly how she saw her husband hacked down and how several soldiers raped her that night. When she emerged from unconsciousness the next morning, she gathered her four children and escaped to Bangladesh.

By now she has started to weep, though she is saying: "I got lucky. A family with seven children took us in. Even though their home is small, they share it with us. I feel safer staying with them."

Her quarters are so tiny that she can touch the tarpaulin walls on either side just by stretching her arms. She and her children don't venture out after dark. "Sometimes it is so hot at night that we can't sleep," she says. "And sometimes when I sleep I wake up screaming."

Other women at the camps have also discovered a darker truth. Sometimes the enemy is not the stranger, but the man sleeping by your side.

NGOs have set up spaces that shelter women who are victims of domestic violence. As each tells her story, it becomes clear that it is essentially the same story.

Madam Sadiah mumbles without opening her mouth much and the reason soon becomes clear. She is missing two front teeth. Her children, aged three and five, had started to cry as they were hungry, and "my husband smashed my head against the wall and broke my teeth", she says. "Then he left me for another woman." Another woman, Madam Fareeda, got beaten up because she complained to her children that her husband was having an affair with a woman from a neighbouring quarter. In turn, the woman who was having an affair got beaten up by her own husband.

WOMEN ARE EASY TARGETS

"These are small, squeezed spaces and everyone is frustrated," says community volunteer Mohd Eliyas. "The women are easy targets. They get beaten up by their husbands who are having an affair, and they also get beaten up if they have an affair themselves."

Already, more than 19,000 women from the camps have received counselling in connection with violence, usually from the men in their family.

Dr Anik Sanjoy, a medical practitioner at the camp, says he never ceases to be amazed by how much the Rohingya women have endured in silence. "They have been raped, beaten up and seen their family members die. Still, they continue to care for their children. When the pregnant ones come to give birth, I see them get up and walk away with the baby just 15 minutes after delivery." Some 48,000 women are expected to give birth in the camps this year. The miracle of motherhood comes in many forms, but none, perhaps, as remarkable as in the case of Madam Rukhiya.

The 25-year-old was fleeing Myanmar with her husband when she heard a sound on a hillside. Someone had abandoned an infant aged around two amid a clump of plants.

"I picked her up and hugged her to my chest," says Madam Rukhiya. "I didn't have any children and this was a gift from God." Now she pampers the child that she has named Arifa. She sells off her food vouchers to buy toys for the girl. "She is always asking me for things but I can't afford to buy most of them," she says.

But there is no tale of unalloyed joy in the camps. Some months after Madam Rukhiya found her daughter, her husband left her because she, herself, had not borne him a child.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 12, 2018, with the headline 'When 60,000 teenage girls hide their faces'. Print Edition | Subscribe