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‘The real risks are cyclonic storms as there are no cyclone shelters for the refugee to be evacuated to’

  • Published at 06:08 pm September 11th, 2019
rohingya women
Photos : Faisal Bin Islam Fishing boats docked at the island Union pf Gabura

Dilruba Haider speaks about the disaster preparedness of Rohingya women

Dilruba Haider is a Program Specialist, heading the Disaster Risk Reduction, Climate Change and Humanitarian Action programs of UN Women Bangladesh. On this issue of Climate Tribune, Dilruba Haider will give her reflections on the disaster preparedness of Rohingya women while providing a glimpse of UN Women’s interventions in the camps in Cox’s Bazar since late 2017.

Based on your experience what are the main concerns of Rohingya Women in Cox’s Bazar?

Rohingya women in Cox’s Bazar face three main issues: a) protection, b) livelihood, and c) empowerment and leadership.

Most of the Rohingya women and girls in Cox’s Bazar have faced extreme violence in Myanmar, either experiencing it directly or witnessing it done to relatives, friends and others. These women fled the violence, travelling hundreds of miles during which they were exposed to further abuse and exploitation on the way. Some were separated from their husbands, sons, and brothers, often leaving them in more vulnerable positions. Even after reaching the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, the trauma of violence, exploitation and separation remains. 

Things have improved since the initial days. I remember this old woman, probably in her late 50s, who came two to three times a week to see the paramedics, complaining about pains in her chest and head. What seemed like a physical discomfort was actually her mental anguish. She had been separated from her son while fleeing Myanmar, and though she had heard that her son was staying at another camp, she did not know how to find him. This was just one story, but there are many more like it in the camps. 

The camps feel like a huge slum, they are congested with very little privacy except within the shelters. Women do not feel safe, and there is mistrust amongst the refugees. The women often prefer staying in their shelters, and they are encouraged by their male counterparts to do so. In fact, there have been reports of intimidation by some groups to further limit women’s mobility. The shelters in which the refugees reside are flimsy and unhygienic. To avoid using the communal latrines and bathing spaces, which offers them little privacy and safety, women have put up sheets of tarp inside their sheds to create make-shift toilets and bathing spaces. Many of them cook indoor, which leads to excessive heat and smoke inside the shelters, as there is a  lack windows or ventilation. As a result, many women have reported respiratory and eye ailments. Those who cannot afford LPG gas for cooking must collect firewood from the forest, exposing them to further violence and abuse.

Polygamy, which is socially acceptable in these communities, is another protection issue. In this emergency situation, it has exacerbated family crisis and given rise to domestic violence. Women coming to the UN Women’s Multi-Purpose Centers have shared their stories, of survivors of rape abandoned by their husbands who marry a second wife. Rohingya women and adolescent girls are also marrying married men from host communities, often as a way of assimilating, creating social unrest. Another major protection issue is trafficking. Although there is no exact data, it is understood that a vast number of trafficking activities are taking place in the camps. Though the government has attempted to limit the refugees’ movements out of the camp, its sheer size and lack of fence protecting its periphery makes it near impossible to limit the movements in and out of the camps by refugees or outsiders. As humanitarian actors are not allowed in the camps past 5 pm, we have little idea of abuse and violence that may be happening after dark. 

To address these issues, UN Women and other agencies have set up 52 women’s centers in the camps. These centers offer lifesaving information, psychosocial support, legal aid, clinical case management, basic sanitation facilities and livelihood training. The centers also provide women and girls with support to prevent, mitigate and respond to gender-based violence. Each day, hundreds of women visit the centers. In addition to the wide range of services and support, these centers give women a space to meet, talk and build a social network, a place for them to feel safe. Agencies have also been installing lighting on roads and around wash facilities to enhance protection for women and girls. 

The government of Bangladesh does not allow refugees to engage in livelihood activities. In reality however, the Rohingyas are often employed by the host community as cheap labour. The majority of refugees working are men. Due to conservative norms the very limited mobility of Rohingya women means limited or no work opportunity. These women and girls often had little access to education and training, further limiting their employability. This has made female-headed households, who account for 16% of all households, particularly vulnerable. The government and UN agencies provide basic amenities, but there are many other needs for which they require money. 

For women to be empowered, they need to work and they need to be trained. To that end, UN Women, in collaboration with the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, was the first agency to initiate livelihoods training for women in the camps, in December 2017. We started training Rohingya women and adolescent girls on tailoring skills. The trained women are now earning an income by sewing dresses for other community members. UN Women has expanded these courses, and now has 5 multipurpose women’s centers (MPWCs) placed around different camps, training women on various livelihood skills. UN Women and other agencies are providing work opportunities to Rohingya women as Community Outreach Members (COMs), Safety Unit Volunteers, and Community Health Workers to undertake community mobilization initiatives and provide support in disaster response. 

The Majis, traditional Rohingya leaders, are all men. They often have little understanding or concern of women’s needs, rarely discussing these with the Camp in Charge, and reports of abuse of power have been noted. To ensure women’s voices and needs are heard in the weekly meetings with Camp in Charge, UN Women has been preparing and supporting women’s groups to attend the meetings and take on a greater leadership role. At Nayapara, a refugee camp in Teknaf, UNHCR organized camp committee elections in mid-2018. Out of the 12 leaders elected, half were women. However, there has been some backlash to women’s empowerment, with some groups in the camps challenging women’s mobility by threatening and intimidating female volunteers and workers from going door to door. This is to be expected, the oppressors will always try to stop the oppressed from gaining more power and freedom. Livelihoods and leadership activities must continue to support Rohingya women.

How vulnerable are the camps to natural disasters, can you share some of your experiences from your camp visit?

Since the camps are located in hilly lands and many shelters are built on slopes, mudslides during heavy monsoon rains are a grave concern, leading to injuries and damages to roads and structures. However, since April 21, 2019, the Inter Sector Coordination Groups (ISCG) has recorded only injuries, mostly minor, from accidents due to slope failure, highlighting the effectiveness and soundness of the disaster preparedness system that has been put in place. The camps are far inland, away from the beach, which makes them relatively safe from tidal surge. The issue of waterlogging due to heavy rains has been addressed by the humanitarian community, through substantial work undertaken to improve the drainage system. 

The real risks are cyclonic storms as there are no cyclone shelters for the refugees to be evacuated to. The houses in the camps are built of plastic sheets and bamboo mats, leaving them extremely vulnerable to category 4 cyclones and other severe weather conditions, despite efforts from UN agencies to secure the structures (such as tying the roofs down to the ground and putting sandbags on roof-top). The cyclone shelters in Cox’s Bazar are closer to the beach, and inadequate in number for the host community population. Refugees would not be able to travel that far, and the existing shelters would not be able to accommodate them. 

What are the gender roles in terms of disaster preparedness for Rohingyas?

The government has recruited Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP) volunteers from the Rohingya refugee population and host community to support warning and evacuation activities for the Rohingya refugees. Half of these volunteers are women. However, more women refugees need to be trained on disaster preparedness and how to support women and girls during any evacuation. In a disaster situation, women’s safety and needs are seldom a concern to the community. Many humanitarian actors also overlook specific needs women may have. For instance, the lack of privacy faced by Rohingya women in the camps can lead to life-threatening issues due to the conservativeness of this community, as they may avoid seeking medical assistance or using public sanitation facilities. It is vital that all sectors have sex, age and disability disaggregated data to support them in designing disaster response programs that meet the specific needs of women, men, boys and girls. 

As Rohingyas are refugees how applicable is the Standing Order on Disaster to them?

The Standing Order on Disaster is for the Bangladeshi population, and therefore is not applicable for the refugee crisis management. The Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner along with the Inter-Sector Coordination Group are responsible for managing the disaster response in the camps and have devised elaborate disaster preparedness and management mechanisms unique to the camp situation.

Rukhsar Sultana is currently working as a Research Assistant in Urban Resilience Program at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD).