In the final part of this two-part series, the Dhaka Tribune explores how young mothers and orphans in the Rohingya refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar contend with arduous challenges while navigating the contours of hope and despair
Insecurity, power imbalances, and a chronic shortage of resources make life difficult for Rohingya refugees, especially women and children.
Partly driven by concerns about resource constraints and security, child marriage remains prevalent among the Rohingya in the world’s fourth largest concentration of refugees in Cox’s Bazar. As many consider children to be precious assets, pregnancy within six months of marriage is the norm. Many women give birth in consecutive years and the use of contraception is rare.
A senior project manager of ACF, Fouzia Yesmin said young Rohingya parents in the camps are unable to care for their children properly: “A child needs timely meals, proper hygiene, and a secure and happy environment, but Rohingya parents can’t meet these needs in such difficult conditions. Children need open space, family ties, and mental recreation for proper development, but these children don’t have access to such provisions, so they suffer from continuous trauma.”
Fouzia said many mothers are unaware of the multiple benefits of breastfeeding, while many are too malnourished to produce milk.
The faith of a struggling mother
The Dhaka Tribune interviewed a woman who has a tough time taking care of her two children, aged four and five. Seven months pregnant, she is currently expecting her third child. Her struggles reflect the difficulties that overburdened women face at the camp.
Too ill to move, cook, or care for her children, she says her body aches all the time, but she can’t go to the hospital: “It’s far away. If I walk, I feel nauseous. I can’t afford to pay anyone to take me to the hospital either.”
Her husband remains away from home most of the day. It is only when he returns with food in the evening that she and the children can eat.
Neither child was home during the interview and she had no idea where they were or what they were doing. She said her son is frequently sick and her daughter is covered in rashes.
She recognizes that she cannot take proper care of her children, but states that they are blessings from God and since He has saved them from certain death so far, she is not worried about bringing another child into the world.
“If I am ill, God will help raise them,” she says.
Orphaned child or family man?
Seven-year-old Mohammad Azim is an orphan, the lone survivor of his family. He now lives with a distant relative who agreed to take him in.
Azim has already had to take many responsibilities onto his young shoulders. He wakes up early in the morning to collect firewood, which he sells locally. He then helps his aunt with various chores. He fetches water for the family and helps with the cooking and shopping. Sometimes Azim accompanies his uncle to collect relief for the family of eight.
“They are keeping me because I earn my keep, but I don’t mind. The chores keep me busy. As they gave me shelter after my whole family was killed, it’s my duty to repay them,” says Azim.
Although Azim often buys milk for his young cousins, he admits he has not even had a sip of milk since he fled his village.
“My mother used to give me a glass of milk every day. We had three cows,” he reminisces.
Azim eats rice and lentils for breakfast. Occasionally there are vegetables or mashed potatoes. By 9am, he heads to a Unicef school which he enjoys very much.
“I have a school bag with books full of pictures. I learn rhymes. My most favorite activity is painting,” he says with excitement.
He then catches himself and says: “But you see I have to be a man. I cannot spend too much time in school.”
He says he earns about Tk80 every day selling firewood. “The most I earned in a day was Tk100. I bought some cold drinks that day and saved some of the money so I can buy sandals.”
But it seems Azim has not yet been able to save enough. He is still barefoot.
For lunch, he is on the lookout for a meal along with his friends. His favorite is khichuri. Once he returns home, Azim goes to bathe in the ponds nearby.
The seven-year old keeps coughing and itching his back while he speaks. “I got drenched yesterday. Now I feel a little feverish.” He also says he has had watery diarrhea with stomach cramps.
“The itching is always there though. Everyone itches,” says Azim dismissively.
“I am not worried about these things,” he says. “It’s my feet I worry about. They hurt a lot.”
No one will take Azim to see a doctor and he has accepted that. “My mother is no more, so no one cares how I am doing anymore.”
Later in the afternoon, Azim has to draw more water for the family. After that he has some time to play football with his friends. He is quite set in his routine.
Today he does not have much time to play as he will have to collect food from the aid office with his uncle.
And what does he do in the evenings? “I come home and start helping my aunt. And after dinner we all go to sleep.”