In the Rohingya’s conservative society, a child born out of wedlock brings shame upon the woman
When four-month-old Bilal suddenly started crying, his mother Rashida cradled him until he fell asleep.
The 35-year-old woman has five other daughters, one of them married. She lives at Balukhali camp with four of them.
Bilal is a reminder of the time when Myanmar soldiers chased her, dragged her to a field, and raped her for two days.
Rashida is one of the numerous victims of sexual assault by the Myanmar military—whose brutal crackdown on the Rohingya is described by the UN as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Rashida, originally from Rakhine’s Merulla village, lost her husband five years ago. When the army attacked last year, she sent her daughters across the Naf River into Bangladesh, with others, and stayed behind. She later decided to leave the village when the crackdown worsened.
In August last year, Rashida arrived at Daungkhali Char, an island in Myanmar on the bank of the Naf—which is where she was raped.
‘Too ashamed to tell the truth’
“I do not know how many times they violated me,” Rashida said, crying. When the soldiers finally moved on, Rashida crossed into Bangladesh—numb to the bone and dazed out of her mind.
“Five months later, I found out that I was pregnant. I tried to have an abortion by swallowing pills, but that did not work,” she said.
“I did not tell anyone that he was conceived through rape,” she said, looking at her baby. “Most of the people thought that my husband was killed by the Myanmar army when I was pregnant with Bilal. But my acquaintances know the truth. They have been avoiding me. It is very painful.”
In a conservative society like that of the Rohingyas, a child born out of wedlock brings shame upon the woman or girl. Many rape victims opt for an abortion. Some of them, who do give birth, give their children up for adoption.
Rashida spends her days in the tarp-and-bamboo shelter and avoids venturing outside. Her next-door neighbours, Shamim and his wife, who know about her situation, bring aid provisions to her.
“My eldest daughter is married and lives in another camp, and her husband forbade her from visiting me. I have not seen her for almost a year," she said.
She delivered Bilal at a hospital clinic run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF). No questions were asked about the baby, and Rashida remained silent, too ashamed to tell the truth.
Breaking the stigma
Rashida has not received any psychological counseling. She said the fear of social stigma does not allow her to tell the truth at counseling centres and women-friendly spaces set up in the camp.
Abdul Munam, the Rohingya community leader at Rashida's camp, said openly speaking about sexual violence could result in backlash and be counterintuitive.
“Everyone here should assist and support each other as much as possible, given our helpless situation. But our community regards rape survivors as a disgrace. It is easier for me to tell some NGOs and aid agencies, instead of fellow refugees, about Rashida's case—in order to help her out and send her provisions,” he said.
Tayabur Rahman Chowdhury, the UNHCR's Health Units Head at Kutupalong camp, told the Dhaka Tribune that the refugee agency has recruited community health volunteers – from among the Rohingyas – to break down the group’s treatment of the victims.
He said: “Since last October, a handful of women have come to my health centre in Kutapalong camp saying they had been raped. Some of them arrived at the centre after they missed their periods and told me what Myanmar soldiers and Rakhine vigilantes did to them.”
He explained that it was difficult to document physical evidence of rape after the first 72 hours as abrasions, cuts, and bruises usually fade away after that time.
“For unmarried girls, hymens are no marker of whether rape occurred or not because not all women have hymens,” he said. “This leaves us with the option of asking rape survivors to keep the clothes they were wearing during the incident unwashed, and to not clean their bodies until they reach the health centre so we can run tests.”
But that is also not realistic as the women inevitably wash after days of travelling on foot crossing the border. For those shouldering the secret of giving birth to children conceived by rape, dealing with the trauma and aftermath depends on support from family members.
“We try to take big initiatives whenever we hear that social stigma has begun to take root against an unmarried girl or mother. We confront the community and ask 'how is this their fault? What would you do in her position?' She was forced, she was raped, and it is not her fault,” he said.
Attitudes towards victims of sexual violence have not dramatically changed to absolve the victims of any blame, but Tayabur said these issues take time and more awareness-building.
Rape as a weapon of ethnic cleansing
Aside from Rashida, the aid agencies which have treated hundreds of Rohingya victims of gender-based violence since August 2017, say they estimate the number of rape victims is greatly understated. This is because they are reluctant to come forward because of the shame.
Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at HRW, said: “Rape has been a prominent and devastating feature of the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. The Burmese military’s barbaric acts of violence have left countless women and girls brutally harmed and traumatized.”
Myanmar does not recognize the mainly-Muslim Rohingyas as citizens. The ethnic minority has long been subjected to state-sponsored discrimination and persecution. Many of them have been forced to live in squalid camps in apartheid-like conditions.
More than 700,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh following last year’s crackdown. The refugees and rights groups accused Myanmar security forces of widespread killing, rape, torture, arson, and looting during the violent campaign in Rakhine State.
Humanitarian organizations working with refugees in Bangladesh have reported hundreds of rape cases. But the actual number is believed to be higher. Many of the victims, like Rashida, choose to remain silent while others have been killed following their rape.
Widespread rape of women and girls was also documented by HRW during the late 2016 military “clearance operations” in northern Rakhine.
A March MSF report said it had treated 113 survivors of sexual violence since August 25 last year—with the age of victims ranging from nine to 50 years. The UN and humanitarian agencies recorded more than 6,000 incidents of gender-based violence against Rohingya Muslims in a seven-month period beginning in late August 2017.
Based on victims’ testimonies, the organization said Myanmar soldiers deliberately used rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls as part of a widespread attack against the Rohingya population.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in April, placed Myanmar's army on a watch-list report of security forces and armed groups “credibly suspected” of using rape and sexual violence in conflict.
“The widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to this strategy, serving to humiliate, terrorize and collectively punish the Rohingya community—as a calculated tool to force them to flee their homelands and prevent their return,” Guterres said.
‘He is my son’
Johara Khatun, 50, living at Kutapalong camp, is known as one of the best traditional midwives. Since she came to the camp, Johara said she had not come across any women who told her that they were raped in Rakhine State.
“Rape is the worst torture for women, especially if it results in conception. But they [the victims] should keep quiet and not talk about what happened to them, otherwise people would look down upon them and cut off ties,” she said.
“In the case of unmarried girls, none would consider them for marriage,” she said, adding that she did not consider abortion to be the solution.
“It is better to have the baby. If the women do not want to take care of their babies, they can give them to families who want children,” said the midwife, who reportedly assisted about 25 deliveries at the camp since coming to Bangladesh.
Rashida, haunted and traumatized by her past, said she will never go back to her village even if she has the chance—fearing that her son will be ostracized.
She and her daughters said they would not give him away either.
“Even if he is the result of rape, he is still my child, my only son.”