Because of patriarchal norms and biological differences, women in the camps are at greater risk
As of November 26, Bangladesh has seen an influx of more than 624,000 Rohingya refugees in a span of eight weeks. Most of the camps that these refugees are moving into have sprung up spontaneously, far from any infrastructure.
There are no roads, electricity, safe water, or sanitation. The situation is also not going be resolved any time soon, since Myanmar not only denies allegations of ethnic cleansing but refuses to recognise the Rohingya as citizens of the country.
Given the precarious conditions of the camps and the indefinite nature of the problem, thousands risk losing their lives from disease and malnutrition despite having survived the immediate massacre.
As aid organisations try to rise to the occasion, unless the humanitarian response is gender sensitive, many more women risk losing their lives than men.
While men are the primary victims of direct armed violence, research by Plumper and Neumayer show that the reduction in life expectancy is greater for women when the entire period of war-related conflict is considered.
Perhaps more telling is data from 1992 Burmese refugee camps in Bangladesh, which show that “the mortality rates of females above the age of ﬁve was 3.5 times higher than that of males.”
The differential morbidity and mortality works primarily through two channels: Biological differences and patriarchal social structures.
First, the Rohingya refugees settlements have insufficient health care facilities. While both men and women will suffer from lack of health care services, women are especially vulnerable due to reproductive health care needs.
Toilets and bathing facilities are inadequate, making menstrual hygiene care impossible
Maternal and infant mortality will go up. Without access to regular birth control, women cannot prevent unplanned pregnancies. Toilets and bathing facilities are inadequate, making menstrual hygiene care impossible. Second, due to patriarchal social norms, women have less intra-household bargaining power than men.
In resource constraint settings, this means men have preferential access to food, money, and health care, and make household distribution decisions which favour themselves.
Women are thus left to fare with whatever is left after men have had their first pick. It seems cruel that men would not equitably share resources with his own family, but there is a rich body of literature that shows it is indeed the case.
For example, in small holder family farms in Kenya, men do not adequately share agricultural inputs with their wives with the result that women’s farms are much less productive than their husbands’.
To what extent is the current humanitarian response sensitive to women’s needs? It seems there is an explicit focus on reproductive health care.
Both BRAC and UNFPA have dispatched midwives. BRAC has deployed hundreds of female volunteers to offer health services. There are public collection efforts for sanitary napkins.
Construction of latrines is a priority, not only to stop the spread of diarrheal diseases, but in recognition of the fact that women will wait till nighttime to answer calls of nature. These are all steps in the right direction.
What is missing in the current execution is solving the agency problem for women. Due to the extreme physical effort required to collect relief goods right now, standing in long lines in the sun, fighting through crowds — it is mostly men who collect aid supplies.
But as things settle down with construction of the new camps, sufficient thought needs to be put into humanitarian operations that give agency to women. Such efforts may include NGOs registering the new tents in a woman’s name thereby giving her “property rights,” making transfers of food and money to women directly so that they do not have to bargain with male household members, meals at children’s centres that feed both children and their mothers.
Cash transfers can be facilitated with the use of technology which reduces the physical effort needed to collect it.
The Rohingya crisis is unique in that a humanitarian response of this scale is being handled primarily by local NGOs.
Bangladesh has been an exemplar of inclusive growth and anti-poverty interventions which have been replicated across the world. It now has the opportunity to set an example of a humanitarian response that is equally life-saving for women and men.
Shammi S Quddus is a dual degree candidate in Master in Public Administration in International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School and MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business. She is a Dubin Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper of the Dhaka Hub.