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The Rape and Sexual Exploitation of the Rohingyas: Transgression of Human Rights and its Aftermath

By Pratiti Shirin

The fleeing of more than 600,000 Rohingyas from the Rakhine State in Myanmar into Bangladesh in 2017 has caused an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and socio-economic problems like increased prostitution. The forced displacement took place due to atrocities of the Myanmar army carried out on Muslim civilians who form an ethnic minority in that country. International communities now identify the systematic killing of the Rohingya as a hidden genocide. At least 377 women were identified as pregnant in the aftermath of mass rape that took place in Myanmar by the militia on Rohingya women and children. Many such women and children resorted to having an abortion on their own in poor sanitary and hygienic conditions of the camps. It put their own lives in danger. While the actual statistics of such abortion will not be available due to social taboo, other children born out of rape found acceptance in the Rohingya community. The current problem that Bangladesh faces is whether to send them back into the paws of death or to keep them in which case the Bangladeshi government would have to give them Bangladeshi citizenship so that they have rights like the right to vote, go to school, etc. It would mean an extra burden on the infrastructure of an already overpopulated country.

It started on 25 August, 2017, according to a report published by the BBC in October of that year. The first reports of the Rohingyas fleeing the Myanmar border due to violence perpetrated by the army of that country in the Rakhine State started to flood the Bangladeshi Media by the end of that month but Bangladesh as its very first reaction, did not open its borders immediately. Only after about two weeks, were the borders opened and by the end of September 2017, more than 600,000 refugees had taken shelter in Cox’s Bazar – the place where the Myanmar border coincides with the Bangladeshi border – after swimming across the Naaf River in the narrow, overpopulated dingy boats that sank there. But these were the more fortunate ones who managed barely to save their lives. Not everyone was lucky enough. The Bangladeshi media was flooded with pictures of burnt houses, children’s mud-filled corpses and shoes which washed up on the shores of the Bay of Bengal causing international outcry and appeal for humanitarian help.

Humanitarian help was also provided by the local population who would pull out almost-drowning people from the waters; the government reacted to this unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the history of its country by setting up two camps exclusively for housing the displaced people. Later on, four makeshift settlements and five new spontaneous sites were also established. Along the border regions of Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban, an estimated 26,000 people were housed (“26,000 Rohingyas”).

Although local Bangladeshi media was reporting on the suffering of the Rohingya for a while, it is only after humanitarian help from the Bangladeshi government and international organsations and media such as UNICEF, BBC, etc. started to arrive in Bangladesh that slowly the sexual atrocity of the Myanmar army carried out on the Rohingyas began to unfold to the world. The story of the Rohingyas is one of utmost brutality and crimes perpetrated against humanity. According to a report by Frontline PBS uploaded on YouTube (Frontline PBS Official), the local Myanmar TV channels reported that it was Bengali terrorists who attacked the village of Chut Pyin in the Rakhine State as a response to which the 33 Light Infantry Division shot back. Bengalis were also reported by the Myanmar media to have burned houses. Men and women were shot at the back by the army and the wounded women were gang raped afterwards by multiple men of the militia. Others were rounded up in bushes and when one woman protested rape, she was shot dead after which one of her breasts was cut off and displayed to the other women to intimidate and force their cooperation into rape. Ninety-two women were found with cut-off breasts according to this report. Many of the rape victims were 12 or 13-year-olds who died as a consequence of rape.

According to another BBC report uploaded online (BBC Newsnight), the Rohingya militants attacked police check points, killing 9 officers and seizing guns and ammunitions. The military responded by closing off the area and shooting civilians. Regardless of how the conflict in the Rakhine State started, the sexual violence carried out by the army against women and children bears solid evidence. This BBC reporter went to Bangladeshi Rohingya camps unable to obtain entry into Myanmar itself. The Rohingyas are perceived widely as the world’s most unwanted people, the lowest of the low who are denied citizenship of Myanmar and is seen as illegal immigrants who belong to Bangladesh. But this report also shows that the Myanmar military systematically mass raped the Rohingya women with a view to ethnic cleansing in the same manner in which unmentionable atrocities were carried out by the Pakistani military on Bangladeshi women during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. Many of the techniques carried out on the Rohingya women by the Myanmar military, like mutilation of bodies, cutting of breasts, plucking off eyes and inserting sharp objects into the vagina, are the techniques used by the Pakistani militia on Bengali women during 1971. The Myanmar government, backed up by Aung San Suu Kyi, kept on denying that no human rights violations were taking place there but under the pressure of the United Nations and other human rights groups, set up an investigation committee with a former military general as its head. However, much of the methodology and the treatment of the victims by this committee, according to this BBC report, have been criticized by human rights activists because this committee tried to deny eye-witness accounts of Rohingya women that any rape took place of Rohingya women in Myanmar by the army. The reports were then broadcast onto Myanmar national media. After giving her formal testimony to this committee, an eye-witness who is a victim of gang rape herself was searched afterward by the military in her village as a result of which she fled into Bangladesh after hiding in Burmese jungles for several days. She was subsequently interviewed by the BBC reporter in Bangladesh. In this report as shown in other innumerable ones, the UN envoys agree that definitely inhumane crimes against humanity were committed by the Myanmar army, the border guards, police and other security forces against their own people.

A report by Al Jazeera (Al Jazeera English) calls the massacre carried out by the Myanmar militia on the Rohingya as a hidden genocide. While the actual numbers of men and women killed in Myanmar since August 2017 may never be known, another report published by the same news media on 27 August, 2018 (Al Jazeera News) makes clear that the UN has pressed genocide charges against Myanmar officials and they include sexual violence perpetrated against the Rohingyas whose numbers are more than 6000 according to official UN reports (Bengali).

According to the same source, the aftermath of the Rohingya rape is that many of the pregnancies were terminated in Bangladesh in clinics or using cheap drugs which resulted in medical complications. Abortion in Bangladesh is legal for the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy but according to doctors working in relief camps, they had routinely treated women who had incomplete abortions on their own in advanced stages of pregnancy. From August 2017 until April 2018, a team of the charity group Doctors Without Borders had treated a total of 377 women – including girls as young as 7 – and they believe this is only a fraction of the total number of victims. While according to official records, camps have not seen a significant rise in births, many children were delivered inside huts in unhealthy conditions with basic sanitation and hygiene facilities lacking. Their numbers were not recorded officially. The plight of having a war child is more acute for unmarried women than women with husbands and families. There were options for women of giving up their children for adoption to other Rohingya families but how many took that choice or are likely to take it, is only subject to conjecture since not all pregnancies have been reported.

While negotiation of the Bangladeshi government with the Myanmar government to take back refugees has started, the Rohingyas are unlikely to return to a country where their lives have no security. In that case, it will be the responsibility of the Bangladeshi government to educate these children and recognize them as Bangladeshi nationals. This in all likelihood is a difficult process as we have witnessed in case of the Biharis who were living in Bangladesh before the liberation of the country and whom the Pakistanis refused to take to their country after 1971. Consequently, these so-called ‘trapped Pakistanis’ – many of whom have now integrated into mainstream Bengali culture with being the third generation or so of ‘Biharis’ – still have no access to basic human rights like the right to go to school simply because the Bangladeshi governments since 1971 have failed to recognize this ethnic minority as citizens of Bangladesh. Local NGOs in the country are offering help to these children but unless the state comes forward, the fate of the third generation of Biharis in Bangladesh is yet to be decided. Bangladeshi civil society does not want to witness the repetition of another Bihari crisis for Rohingya war children. But unless solid policy measures are taken and implemented at the state level for official recognition of the Rohingya war children as Bangladeshi citizens, it is more than likely that the Rohingya war children will create additional unemployment and other socio-economic problems like increased crime in an already overpopulated country where unemployment and crime are part and parcel of daily life. Currently, the law of the country is such that children of refugees cannot be recognized as citizens of Bangladesh. So, the state level amendments have to be made if these children are to be given human rights in Bangladesh. Alternatively, like many European countries have divided the load of giving shelter to Syrian refugees among themselves, Bangladesh can look for other countries willing to give political asylum to the Rohingyas in order to relieve the country of the added socio-economic pressure the refugees are creating on the country.

In fact, prostitution has already emerged as a growing socio-economic problem in and around the areas of Cox’s Bazar which is a prime tourist site of the country due to its proximity to the Bay of Bengal and the location having the longest sea beach in the world. The so-called ‘Burmese women’ along with local women were available in hotels for sex work before the Rohingya crisis had begun but now the situation is worse. According to a Reuters report, clandestine sex industry booms inside Rohingya camps as young girls and women struggle to secure basic necessities such as food and water (Glinski). While there are no official reports available, at least 500 Rohingya women are rumoured to work as prostitutes according to this same report, catering to locals but not to other Rohingya men. Many of these sex workers are children who have no more than one meal per day and they do not attend schools. Their parents do not know of their clandestine work. It is mainly hunger which prompts these girls to take up sex work with prices varying between 200 (2.5 $) to 1000 (12 $) taka. There are safe houses near the camps. They shelter rape victims, single mothers and sex workers but the manager of one such institution called Pulse says that girls are unwilling to talk of their selling sex for fear of being found out and losing face as that might jeopardize their future and prospects of getting married – a claim confirmed by one sex worker whom the Reuters reporter managed to interview.

Other than facing social stigma, the girls often have no choice but to have unprotected sex upon their client’s demand, leaving them exposed to risks of HIV and other deadly STDs. Although Bangladesh is still a low prevalence country, whereas the total number of HIV and AIDS infected people has declined globally, Bangladesh is one of the few countries of the world which experiences an annual rise in HIV (Al Jaki). The Rohingya crisis can only contribute to this growing number of the HIV epidemic without formal and informal intervention. Local NGOs need to come forward with regard to providing protection and rehabilitation to these girls as the most vulnerable sections of society but unless an overall attitudinal change with regards to condom use by clients takes place, girls will remain at their mercy for protected sex. Therefore, increased media campaign with the aim of creating awareness for condom use which the country has seen in recent years will not be sufficient for combating the HIV epidemic in the country, unless, once again, there is a legal recognition of the Rohingya refugees as Bangladeshi citizens in order to integrate them into mainstream society.

The Rohingya crisis has been regarded as the largest forced eviction the world has seen in recent years. The Bangladeshi government has displayed an outstanding humanitarian response by opening up the borders of the country and giving shelter to thousands of people who were fleeing for their lives. Much of the credit for this laudable effort goes to the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who in responding to the Rohingya crisis, has remembered the efforts of Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India who opened up the borders of the country to give shelter to Bangladeshis who were fleeing with their lives from the Pakistani militia during 1971. Sheikh Hasina has been hailed as the ‘‘Mother of Humanity’’ for her outstanding response to this crisis by the international community. But the question remains as to what extent and how well the country now can cope with the Rohingya population in the aftermath of its mass exodus from Myanmar. Gendered and sexual violence carried out on children and women is just one – albeit not small – but a very important aspect of this overall humanitarian crisis. While the country has received millions of dollars of foreign aid from international relief organisations in the immediate wake of this unprecedented human-induced disaster, it remains up to the Bangladeshi state alone to formulate and implement long-term policies to ensure the welfare and dignity of the Rohingyas.

Photo: Dhaka Tribune

Works Cited

Al Jaki, Masum. “HIV/AIDS on the Rise in Bangladesh.” Daily Asian Age, 4 January, 2017, https://dailyasianage.com/news/43421/hivaids-on-the-rise-in-bangladesh

Al Jazeera English. Myanmar: “The Hidden Genocide.” YouTube, 30 October.2013, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeerainvestigates/2012/12/2012125122215836351.html

Al Jazeera News. “UN Documents ‘Shocking’ Crimes against Humanity.” 27 August, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/report-calls-genocide-charges-myanmar-officials-180827062244502.html

BBC News. “Myanmar Rohingya: What you Need to Know about the Crisis.” 24 April, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561

BBC Newsnight. “Myanmar: Are Crimes against Humanity Taking Place?” YouTube, 10 March, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pebrk29ZJW8

Bengali, Shashank. “I Didn’t Want this Baby: Rohingya Rape Survivors Face a Harrowing Choice.” Los Angeles Times, 1 June, 2018, http://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-myanmar-rohingya-rape-20180601-story.html

Frontline PBS Official. “Rohingya Survivor Speaks Out about Mass Rape.” YouTube, 7 May, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uF-vhW21Xn4

Glinski, Stefanie. “Clandestine Sex Industry Booms in Rohingya Refugee Camps.” Reuters, 24 October, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bangladesh-rohingya-sexworkers/clandestine-sex-industry-booms-in-rohingya-refugee-camps-idUSKBN1CS2WF

“26, 000 Rohingyas Being Shifted to Cox’s Bazar from Bandarban.” The Daily Star,  3 October, 2017, https://www.thedailystar.net/rohingya-crisis/26000-rohingyas-being-shifted-coxs-bazar-bandarban-1471027

Bio:
Pratiti Shirin is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, University of Dhaka in Bangladesh. She takes a keen interest in feminism and gender studies issues due to being brought up by a widowed college-teacher mother. She writes short stories and articles for national newspapers. She is also the author of the memoir Under European Skies (2016). She was an awardee of Commonwealth Scholarship (2014-15) at London. She can be reached at pratshirin85@gmail.com

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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