Rohingya Crisis: Alarming Narrative of Women and Children
By Prerona Dey and Aasita Bali
Identity is derived from a Latin word “idem”, it is also a word which evokes the sense of belongingness for an individual. Migration is a process of social change where an individual or a group of individuals move from one geographical location to another either for a prolonged stay or permanent settlement for various political, social and economic reasons. A process of such displacement which involves leaving behind social networks accompanied by a sense of loss, dislocation and alienation, causes distress to the migrants or refugees (Bhugra, 2004). The sense of belongingness is a crucial step for refugees and migrants in the processes of identity negotiation because the desire for their roots, and stability challenges the conventional constructs of social norms and national boundaries.
Rohingya is an ethnic minority group in Myanmar (also known as Burma) who as described by the UN are in a crisis due to “ethnic cleansing”. After the Rohingya insurgents retaliated to the rising persecutions of Rohingya Muslims by killing Myanmar security forces in August 2017, a mass exodus took place, with 7,00,000 Rohingyas fleeing to neighbouring countries on boats as refugees (Safi, 2018). When Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh and India, the Myanmar army aggressively responded to the situation, which led to violence and bloodshed, with hundreds of Rohingyas being killed.
This article tries to examine the Rohingya crisis with specific reference to women and children who became the most vulnerable targets. It also tries to articulate how limited media coverage and misinformation shaped the Rohingya narrative.
Why is it a crisis?
The massacre of Rohingyas has led to grim prospects on the mental and physical health of Rohingya survivors in the refugee camps of Bangladesh. Most women and children who entered Bangladesh were not welcomed as fellow being. In fact, in most cases young women were promised greener pastures but forced into sex trade whereas the children were trafficked.
If one were to visit Cox Bazar in September 2018, it appeared as one of the most congested areas in Sothern Bangladesh since it was jam-packed with Rohingya refugee camps. According to World Health Organisation (2018), as of 22 July, 2018, an estimated 9,19,000 Rohingya refugees have been transported here, of which 7,06,364 newly arrived since 25 August, 2017. The barefoot, dehydrated and exhausted Rohingyas who made it to safe shores have been kept in the fringes of Bangladesh in overpopulated makeshift camps with poor sanitation and scarcity of food.
Weather conditions too have not been very favourable; monsoons have destroyed their bamboo shacks depriving them of even basic shelter over their heads. 51,138 Rohingyas have been affected by rains between 11 May and 11 September, 2018 (WHO, 2018). Several waterborne diseases have broken in the camp areas with Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI), Unexplained Fever (UF) and Acute Watery Diarrhoea (AWD) being the three leading illnesses monitored by World Health Organisation Epidemiology. ARI is the major cause of illness in this camp, especially among children who are below the age of five.
The Government of Bangladesh have signed an agreement of repatriation of the Rohingyas over the next two years with Myanmar officials. The government does not wish to accept the Rohingyas refugees and wants them to return to Myanmar in the next 18 to 24 months with the condition that the Myanmar authorities takes the ownership of the crisis and makes conscious effort to resolve it as well. This comes despite the fact that United Nations and International bodies have been sceptical about the decision as it might lead to further violence and non-acceptance of the Rohingyas in their homeland.
The local Bangladeshi citizens are resisting the hospitality offered by the government because the influx of refugees have added an instant increase of one percent in its 163 million population (Solomon, 2017). This means slow economic growth which is currently around 7 percent, increase in the demand for land and price index of food. The unsolicited refuge has also resulted in mental distress and emotional trauma among the Rohingyas which is proving detrimental to their physical health, especially among lactating women who are so undernourished that they are unable to even produce milk to breastfeed their young babies. In November 2017, the UNICEF warned that one in four Rohingya children in Bangladesh suffered from acute malnutrition.
Graver Crisis for Women and Children
The densely populated refugee camps inhabited by the Rohingyas lack basic facilities such as lockable shelters, decent lighting and gender-based bathrooms which can ensure protection to the vulnerable groups. In absence of these facilities, women and children, who constitute about 60% of new arrivals at the camps, enhance their chances of being attacked, particularly at night (Osamor, 2018). The lack of security for women and children are resulting in opportunistic sex, human trafficking and gender-based abuse and exploitation. As per BBC (2018), girls in their teens are being trafficked into prostitution in Rohingya refugee camps. Traffickers use the cruel tactic of luring young girls out of the camps by fostering the false hope of a good life and put them into labour and sex work. The Rohingya women and children who fled from sexual assaults back in the Rakhine State are subjected to danger even now, in the refugee camps of Bangladesh. According to statistics provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 2018, 77% of the women and children who have taken shelter in these camps, reported feeling unsafe at some point. While inadequate funding under the Joint Response Fund 2018, with only 25% of the funds received for women protection services, is a deterrence, other solutions need to be sought for gender-based violence faced by over three fourth of female population in the refugee camps (Osamor, 2018). Integration of more women service groups and non-government organisations with technical expertise is required on ground.
The dawn of a new crisis arrived in Bangladesh when an estimated 90% of Rohingya women were being raped by Myanmar forces during the takeover of the Rakhine State, nine months ago and resulting in over 60 births a day in refugee camps (Hutchinson, 2018). The dire condition of the camps with the monsoons having washed away basic shelter calls for an urgent need for sexual and reproductive healthcare as well as post rape care including safe abortions and emergency contraception. Military rape is a weapon of war since sexual violence is being committed in an armed conflict and when violence is widespread and methodically targeted towards one group it is a humanitarian crisis or an act of genocide as in the case of the Rohingyas.
An estimated of 48,000 women will give birth in Rohingya refugee camps in 2019, among them the rape victims will be forced to give birth discreetly without any medical provisions on the floors of bamboo shacks overlooking the Myanmar and Bangladesh border (Post, 2018). Volunteers, specialists, on ground aid workers are in a desperate search to find pregnant Rohingya rape victims since they have been hiding their pregnancy out of shame and social stigma attached to rape survivors. There is a genuine fear amongst raped and pregnant Rohingya women that they might have to abandon their new-borns or face death due to lack of medical care required for post-natal treatments.
In the times of internet and mass media where feminist movements such as #Metoo are more relevant than ever, the voice of exploited Rohingya women also need to be heard and not be silenced by Myanmar’s bureaucracy. Since Rohingya women are unable to negotiate their identity due to lack of agency, reports of sexual assaults in Ruáingga language are lost in translation. Oppression of refugee Rohingya women and children ranging from trauma, shock, prostitution and rape has evolved as a dominant narrative of the women. This has also questioned the intention of the State to take any consolidated action or any intervention by International bodies or non-government organizations. This has further led to a loss of identity among Rohingya women in Bangladesh.
As Myanmar opened itself up to internet and democratic form of governance in 2012, news consumption among Bangladeshis also expanded from print and television to online news. Rise in online news consumption also had its flip side in terms of rise in hate speeches towards Rohingyas and other communities, social media manipulations and fake news. One such instance of information conflict occurred when Ashin Wirathu a Buddhist monk, was barred from public preaching and instigating violence against the Rohingyas. He took to social media, Facebook, to continue his hate speeches making Facebook the centre of a brutal information war (Mozur, 2017, Zaw Htay, 2017). In another instance, the spokesperson from Aung San Suu Kyi administration was also one of the accused responsible for posting pictures on Facebook and Twitter which triggered the conflict between the Rohingyas and the State.
The shifting of grounds in Myanmar led to all the weights being borne by the press. In September 2018, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two journalists who were found guilty of breaching Myanmar’s Official Secret Act, were sentenced to imprisonment for seven years (Goldberg, 2018). This judgement witnessed international outrage since it was a crackdown on freedom of press and, therefore, a huge setback for free speech in Myanmar.
Journalists are not given access to enter the refugee camps in the Rakhine State, Myanmar and, therefore, the stories of refugees especially women remain in dark, unreported, thereby creating a conscious gap in the Rohingya narrative. The limited media coverage, gunning down on the fourth custodian and the misinformation spread through social media on the Rohingya narrative, have made it a complex matter of conflict and disappointment in humanity.
The absence of concrete steps or reforms taken by International organizations and mere lip service in the name of action by the State have marginalized the Rohingya refugees and censoring of press freedom has resulted in a complex multi-layered Rohingya narrative with no one to take any responsibility or ownership. Given the fact that Bangladesh never had an immigration system in place, it lacked an existing legal framework for refugees and since the rights women differ from one nation/state to another, migration has a drastic impact on the personal identity of refugees (Barbera, 2015). The Rohingya women have been made scapegoats after being raped by military forces and the young girls lured into prostitution due to the absence of any agency.
The stark contrast in women’s leadership approach towards the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2017 is appalling. While Germany opened its borders to provide safe passage for refugees in 2015 under the leadership of Angela Merkel, Myanmar’s head of State, Ann Yong Su Ki, remains silent on the military crackdown by the State on the Rohingyas in 2017 after becoming Myanmar’s de facto leader in 2016. Thus, the battle for gender sensitivity is being lost in a State which on its face represents women empowerment. In fact, the identity of a woman is being forgotten for projected masculinity and power. The label of a pragmatic and fierce woman politician governing a multi-ethnic state with a complex history is being triumphed. Therefore, the Rohingya women have been reduced to subaltern and left silenced, with no say and no recognition by social or political class.
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Prerona Dey is currently working with a media organisation as a content curator and have a keen interest in films and feminism. She has completed her graduate degree from Christ University, Bengaluru with a masters in Media Studies. She previously wrote for an e-paper newsbureaux.com. Her research interest encompasses films and gender. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Aasita Bali is a film-maker and an Assistant Professor in Department of Media Studies, CHRIST (deemed to be University), Bangalore, India. Her research interests include designing, presenting and teaching courses on Film studies, Communication and Media Theories, Advertising and Digital Media, Gujarati Identity, Indian Cinema, and Political Communication. She can be contacted at email@example.com
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