An 18-day old Rohingya infant was crying inside a healthcare centre to get its mother’s attention. The mother kept trying to respond to her baby’s cry by breastfeeding it, but the little one kept refusing.
A health officer found out that the infant defecated and told the mother why it was crying.
The mother went to clean the baby, and when she came back at the breastfeeding room, the baby had stopped crying already.
This was a scene at ACF Bangladesh at the Outpatient Therapeutic Program Center in Kutupalong, Cox’s Bazar when Nur Fatema, an adolescent girl, came to the centre with her infant. She is one of those young lactating Rohingya mothers who is malnourished and finds difficulty in breastfeeding her child and response as well. She only knows that she has become a mother, but does not understand motherhood.
According to the UNFPA, 64,626 Rohingya women were provided with antenatal care between August 2017 and March 2018 in the camps.
Victim of child marriage
When asked her age, Fatema said she is 18 years old. On for how long she was married, she said it had been a year and also said she got married one year after her menstruation started.
If her second answer is right, then she is hardly 15 years even though health officers said she looks younger.
“Hiding age or lying about being 18 is common among underage girls with early pregnancy. We deal with these cases in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Both the countries have provisions on child marriage and specified the age of marriage,” said Fouzia Yesmin, senior officer of nutrition and health project in ACF Bangladesh.
“A child is becoming a mother of child here. Like Fatema, many Rohingya women do not understand the connection between a mother and a child. Many lactating and pregnant adolescents come here for health check up or to collect micro nutrient. They only know one number to say when asked how old you are – which is 18.”
“They do not realize how risky the child marriage could be for an adolescent, especially when they become pregnant. The community has blind trust in the god that he will take care of them,” she added.
Outreach volunteers working on raising awareness among Rohingya community said that the practice of child marriage is socially and culturally accepted in the community.
Fatema conceived within a few months of her marriage. She was only two months pregnant when she joined her community to find a safe shelter in Bangladesh.
It still haunts her when she recalled how she made the journey along with her husband and brother in law, both with bullet wounds at their legs.
“The afternoon of that day was quite like any other day. My husband Salek came back home from field. When it is almost evening, we heard people crying for help and sound of firing bullets.”
“My husband went outside to see what happened and a bullet hit him on his right leg. All of us came out to take him away while my brother-in-law also got shot in his legs.”
“We saw our neighbours running away, so we also immediately fled our house leaving everything behind to save lives.”
Fatema’s family was among those who own their own land, and financially solvent.
“We left money, jewelry, home, crop field and everything in Burma. Now we live in a makeshift camp. Memories of my home back in Burma come to my mind over and over again.
“It took six days to reach Bangladesh. My husband was injured and people carried my brother-in-law all the way. I forgot that I was pregnant at that moment,” she said.
During pregnancy Fatema spent time at her room in the makeshift camp, as Rohingya people have a culture that does not allow adolescent girls to go outside.
Fatema also believes that young women should not go out as religion does not allow them to do so and it is considered a sin.
So, she did not have any medical history on check up during her pregnancy.
Giving birth without any attendant
Fatema is one of them who give birth to a child without any help of birth attendant.
Outreach workers said many births are taking place under health facility and the number of women giving birth without facility is also high.
She was not aware about health condition and obviously, did not know her probable delivery date.
The day when her labour pain started, her husband went to Cox’s Bazar hospital along with his brother for medical checkup. Fatema thought the pain was some kind of abdomen pain or stomach upset.
“I thought it is a normal pain, which will be all right soon. But the pain increased. I was alone with my aged mother-in-law. In the afternoon I gave birth to my son, Rahmatullah, and cut the umbilical cord myself,” she said.
“I wish I could give birth to the baby in my home in Burma,” said an upset Fatema.
Fatema, a child herself does not really know what child care is. When asked about her duties as a mother she said that caring the infant on lap, if it defecates then clean, and breastfeed if the infant cries are her major duties. “I believe Allah will raise my son like he does others,” she said confidently.
Fatema also faced difficulties in breastfeeding her child as she lacked knowledge about it.
She said that she cannot feed her son properly because she cannot eat enough nutritious food and that is why she came to the center for micro nutrient supplements.
“In the camp it is difficult to have the feeling of motherhood. We are just surviving at the refugee camp,” said Meena, who was born and grown up in the camp.