Searching for
safety:
Women
in the world’s
biggest refugee
camp

After fleeing persecution and violence in Myanmar, Rohingya women must recover from the atrocities they have experienced while caring for their families in the crowded confines of the camps. Here, seven aid agencies bring together stories and images from 18 months of the crisis.

Rohana Begum holds her baby in her shelter. Credit: Allison Joyce/Save the Children

Rohana Begum holds her baby in her shelter. Credit: Allison Joyce/Save the Children

A new baby usually brings happiness - but for 25-year-old Rohingya refugee Rohana Begum* the arrival of her daughter, Khotija*, was fraught with danger.

Rohana was alone in her shelter made of wood and plastic sheeting when she went into labour. Her husband and mother-in-law, Toslima*, were out, and after delivering the baby on her own, Rohana began to lose a lot of blood. She lay unconscious and haemorrhaging until Toslima finally returned a few hours later.

“There was a lot of bleeding,” remembered Rohana.
“I became unconscious, I had no sense in my brain.”

Luckily, Rohana was found and taken to a Save the Children clinic where she was cared for and both Khotija and her are doing well.

Childbirth is just one of the reasons that Rohingya women are disproportionately affected by life in Kutupalong, the world's largest refugee camp. It exists within the area of Cox’s Bazar, home to dozens of camps which sit near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Around 60 babies were born every day in the camps in 2018. Many of the women were pregnant when they were forced to flee Myanmar.

Rohana Begum* holds her newborn baby, Khotija* - Allison Joyce / Save The Children

“I am surprised that my
daughter is healthy after
what we have been through.”

Marjina*

Marjina, with her two-month-old daughter Asma, in their tent in Balukhali refugee camp. Credit: Farzana Hossen/Surya/Oxfam

Marjina, with her two-month-old daughter Asma, in their tent in Balukhali refugee camp. Credit: Farzana Hossen/Surya/Oxfam

"I was eight months pregnant when they came," said Marjina of the morning she was forced to flee her home in Rakhine state, Myanmar. "It was just before dawn and we were sleeping. We heard gunshots and looked outside to work out what was happening. When we saw the house was on fire we had to pick up the children and run. As we ran through the forest they shot at us.

"My disabled aunt couldn’t run and she died in the flames."

Marjina and her family fled barefoot through jungle and over hills for 10 days until they reached the river Naf, which marks Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. “I was so weak I couldn’t even hold up my head,” said Marjina. “I thought I was going to die.” They paid a fisherman to take them across. Marjina collapsed when they reached the other side. She was taken to hospital, where she stayed for three days.

One month later, on the floor of their makeshift shelter of bamboo and tarpaulin, Marjina gave birth to a daughter, Asma*. “I am surprised that my daughter is healthy after what we have been through,” she said. “I give thanks that we are all alive.”

Marjina and her family were part of an exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya who now live in Cox’s Bazar. The arrival of so many people in a relatively short time caused a crowded city of makeshift shelters to pop up on a hilly area with next to no infrastructure, sparking a humanitarian crisis that international aid agencies scrambled to respond to.

Views of the camps in October 2017. Since then they have continued to grow and are now home to approximately a million refugees.

Views of the camps in October 2017. Since then they have continued to grow and are now home to approximately a million refugees.

Many of the women arrived carrying the trauma of extreme physical and sexual violence.

" I went back to lock the door.
But I was too late."

Hamida*

Hamida sits in her shelter. Credit: Josh Estey/CARE

Hamida sits in her shelter. Credit: Josh Estey/CARE

Hamida* told no one about what happened. The only person who knew was her eldest son, who was killed when their village was attacked. “I sent my children away into the jungle and just went back to lock the door. But I was too late, two men pushed in the door and grabbed me,” Hamida says with tears running down her face. “They raped me,” she whispered.

After her ordeal Hamida ran into the jungle, found her other four children and followed other people from her village towards Bangladesh.

Many women in the camps have similar stories, and there have been many babies born to mothers believed to have been sexually assaulted.

Aid agencies have been providing counselling and support to women who have experienced horrific violence. Hamida received help from CARE International.

"When I hear their words
I also feel the pain."

Dr Fatema Aktar

Dr Fatema Akter on her rounds. Credit: Noor Alam/ActionAid

Dr Fatema Akter on her rounds. Credit: Noor Alam/ActionAid

Dr Fatema Aktar is a counsellor and paramedic working for ActionAid who sees 30 to 40 women per day, although at the peak of the crisis she saw around 80. She gives psychosocial support from a Women-Friendly Space - a safe space in the overcrowded camps for women to meet, socialise and discuss their problems -referring people for medical treatment when necessary.

“They lost everything and came here," she said. "Children have been killed in front of their mothers. Girls have been tortured. They have been raped. They are bringing all this trauma with them and they cry a lot. When I hear their words I also feel the pain. I give them encouragement."

“When they first arrived there were no toilet facilities, there were few shelters. Now thank God things are a bit better.”

Credit: Paddy Dowling/DEC

However, for many of Dr Fatema's patients, violence and intimidation is not only in their past.

"A common problem is women being beaten by their husbands in the camp," said Fatema. "I always get these kinds of cases. And another problem is women being left by their husbands.

“When they tell us what they’re going through, we try to provide them with support."

However, due to traditional Rohingya culture, many women do not speak out and the problem is expected to be much more widespread than figures suggest.

Credit: Paddy Dowling/DEC

Credit: Paddy Dowling/DEC

Charities are also providing Girl-Friendly Spaces where girls can learn and play.

Images: Aungmakhai Chak/DEC

Images: Aungmakhai Chak/DEC

Credit: Plan International

Credit: Plan International

Teenage girls face other challenges. Starting their periods in the crowded, unsanitary and rudimentary camps, they face a constant shortage of pads or clean cloths, no medication for cramps and the conundrum of where to dispose of their used menstrual hygiene products.

Pads are inordinately expensive to buy – more than 20 times the price they were in Myanmar – and not readily available so girls are reliant on aid agencies.

Credit: Plan International

“When we first arrived, they didn’t have anything. Sometimes we use cloths, other times it’s pads,” explained 15-year-old Nurankis.

Furthermore, they are up against cultural norms that stigmatise periods, forcing them to stay indoors for days and not speak to male relatives.

Plan International is distributing hygiene kits to vulnerable families and unaccompanied girls in the camps. The kits, which include soap, toothbrushes, water containers, hygienic cloths, menstrual hygiene products, undergarments, antiseptic liquid and other small personal items, will ensure that Rohingya families – particularly women and girls – can meet their personal care and hygiene needs and help prevent the spread of disease.

As if life wasn't difficult enough, Bangladesh's rainy monsoon season lasts from June to October, turning the dusty ground to thick mud, and creating the risk of landslides on the steep slopes where makeshift shelters have been constructed.

"The monsoon makes life very difficult," said Asia Bibi*. "Our shelter is right next to a hill and when it was raining non-stop the hill started to collapse. Mud started flowing down."

With the monsoon rains, and so many people packed into such a small area, come waterborne diseases. Diphtheria and other diseases often affect children worst, and have claimed the lives of those drinking dirty water.

Rahima Khatun is a British Red Cross hygiene volunteer. Credit: AJ Ghani/British Red Cross

Rahima Khatun is a British Red Cross hygiene volunteer. Credit: AJ Ghani/British Red Cross

Two of Rahima Khatun's (pictured above) children died on the journey from Myanmar, one as a result of disease. She is one of tens of thousands of people trained in hygiene promotion by the British Red Cross.

“When I lost my two children, I wanted to climb into the hole with them and lay there," she said. "Though I’m sad, it’s very important to tell our terrible story to the whole world.”

“By drinking this water we are getting many diseases. Water is so important for our health, for our hygiene, for our safety."

“I want to protect other people’s children so they don’t fall to disease. I have one child now and I will try my best to protect her and the community’s children.”

Baby Ismil* is comforted by his mother Azida* and grandmother Fatima*.

Baby Ismil* is comforted by his mother Azida* and grandmother Fatima*. Four week-old Ismil was born at 2am, three days after his mother and grandmother crossed the border into Bangladesh. Credit: Hanna Adcock/Save the Children

Asia Bibi with a solar powered lamp provided by Oxfam, in her shelter. Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Baby Ismil* is comforted by his mother Azida* and grandmother Fatima*. Four week-old Ismil was born at 2am, three days after his mother and grandmother crossed the border into Bangladesh. Credit: Hanna Adcock/Save the Children

Asia Bibi with a solar powered lamp provided by Oxfam, in her shelter. Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Many women are concerned about the lack of light in the camps at night. "We couldn't see where we were stepping and would tumble over", said Anowara who would stay awake keeping watch over her children, fearful of child snatchers or predatory animals. Modina (pictured below) fell and hurt her hip in the darkness.

Charities such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save the Children have installed solar lighting in areas of the camps and distributed household solar lamps to make people feel safer at night.

Asia Bibi (pictured above), a single mother of two, is grateful for all she has received from aid agencies.

"When we first arrived in Bangladesh we didn't have any food or money," she said. "I had to ask for help from other refugees in order to feed my kids. We suffered a lot at that time. When I think about it now I get stressed and my stomach hurts. Since then we have received help so right now we're in a good situation."

"Oxfam's plastic storage buckets have been a saving grace, especially during the monsoon as I can store rice in one to keep it dry."

But she is clear that these things are not the reason she came to Bangladesh. "Right now we're in a good situation but we did not come here because we wanted aid. We came here because we needed to save our lives."

Modina fell and hurt her hip in the darkness. Credit: Josh Estey/CARE

Shafiqa attends a women's group run by Christian Aid. Credit: Salman Saeed/Christian Aid

Modina fell and hurt her hip in the darkness. Credit: Josh Estey/CARE

Shafiqa attends a women's group run by Christian Aid. Credit: Salman Saeed/Christian Aid

Ensuring that the voices of women are heard when it comes to having a say in how the camps are run has meant challenging cultural norms and finding new forms of organisation for Rohingya women.

During the monsoon season, the tarpaulins of Sahfiqa's shelter would give way to the elements, and water would leak inside. At other times, the gas would run out at the nearby Christian Aid supported community kitchen.

Through a Women-Friendly Space also provided by Christian Aid, Shafiqa was able to provide feedback on services via a voice recording. Shafiqa's recording went to the site management office and solutions were put into place within the following days.

Pleased with how effective her feedback had been, Shafiqa and others voice many of their pressing problems through this channel.

Gathering complaints and feedback from households ensures that the voices and needs of every person are documented and communicated to the humanitarian actors for immediate response.

"I want my child to have
an education."

- Hala*

With no clear solution to the crisis in sight, almost a million Rohingya remain stuck in the camps in Bangladesh, with women and girls facing challenges every day. While the crisis might be out of the headlines, the refugees remain unable to work and are reliant on aid agencies for basic necessities including food, shelter, hygiene and sanitation.

But some still harbour hopes for the future. Hala* watched her whole village burn to the ground when she was forced to flee while eight months pregnant. Her baby, born shortly after her family arrived in Bangladesh, developed pneumonia but recovered after treatment and is now doing well. "I want my child to have an education," she said.

You can help support the Rohingya Crisis by donating to the charities mentioned in this article.

With thanks to:
ActionAid
British Red Cross
CARE International
Christian Aid
Oxfam
Plan International
Save the Children

*Names changed to protect identities.