Kidnappings, shootings, and the threat of sexual violence are forcing Rohingya refugee women to live in fear, often preventing them from leaving their homes to access vital services, according to refugee women, aid workers, and camp officials in Bangladesh.
Women and girls make up 52% of the more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who live in the camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district – the world’s largest refugee settlement.
“There is no security for girls here,” said Fatema*, a woman in her 30s who works as a volunteer for an aid organisation in one of the camps. “If girls go for a walk somewhere on the road, going from one camp to another camp, they are kidnapped by criminals.”
Despite these persistent threats, the international funding that aid providers and Bangladeshi authorities rely on to provide services for women and girls – and support for victims of abuses and gender-based violence – has been shrinking.
Oxfam, Save the Children, Action contre la faim (Action Against Hunger), and the UN country team in Bangladesh all told The New Humanitarian that donations have slowed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, while other services were interrupted during the pandemic.
The top official responsible for the camps, Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, said the lack of international support makes things harder as the Bangladeshi government continues to battle high levels of gender-based violence and increasing criminality in the camps.
“Services provided to women, as well as other [support] activities, are under crisis,” Rahman told The New Humanitarian. “We depend on humanitarian aid for adequate services like sanitation, shelter, and nourishment, so we require financial support from the global community to function.”
Initially optimistic after fleeing Myanmar – where military, police, and local militia killed at least 6,700 people in late 2017 and raped an estimated 18,000 women and girls – Fatema said security in the camps has deteriorated over the last two years.
She was so concerned for the safety of her 16-year-old daughter that she hired a family friend to smuggle her out of the camps to Malaysia. Instead, he took her to Myanmar, where she was arrested. Fatema hasn’t heard from her daughter in two years.
“He stole my daughter,” she told The New Humanitarian.
One reason for the growing instability has been a rise in gang violence in the camps. A February report by Bangladesh’s Defence Ministry said there were 64 killings in the camps between 2021 and 2022, citing 11 armed groups, including the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization.
Last month, one woman was shot and killed, and her sister wounded, after 15 assailants attacked her home. Bangladeshi police said the attack was part of a power struggle between armed groups.
“The international community is not paying enough attention to Rohingya refugees,” said Onno van Manen, country director for Save the Children in Bangladesh. “The aid is shrinking; the needs are not.”
Growing risk of sexual exploitation and abuse
Gender-based violence and forced marriages have long been common in the overcrowded, sprawling refugee settlements, which span some 26 square kilometres, and there have been regular reports of Rohingya girls and women being kidnapped.
Ayesha’s family said she was just 11 when she was kidnapped in February 2021 by a security guard working at an aid distribution centre located opposite their home.
Ayesha* told The New Humanitarian that the man dragged her onto a three-wheeled vehicle and drove for hours before stopping at a home outside the camps. She said a woman inside fed her grapes and cookies, and then – in a room with a cupboard full of dolls and stuffed animals – the man raped her.
“I was scared that he would sell me,” she said. But the next morning, Ayesha said there was no one there – she escaped and eventually made it back home.
It was in 2021 that The New Humanitarian first spoke to Ayesha and nearly two dozen other Rohingya women and girls who said they had been subjected to sexual exploitation and abuse. Ten women and girls said they were kidnapped and raped by aid workers – one over the course of several weeks.
More recent reporting suggests the violence, if anything, is getting worse.
“Domestic violence and polygamy persist in the camps, with many women suffering from abuse and health problems as a result.”
John Quinley, a director at Fortify Rights, visited the camps in March and documented an uptick in clashes between armed groups and threats toward Rohingya women.
“The security situation in the refugee camps in Bangladesh is deteriorating,” he said. “Rohingya militants are targeting those they see as a threat to their power, including majhis (Rohingya refugees installed as unelected camp leaders by the Bangladesh authorities), religious leaders, and Rohingya women aid workers and other Rohingya activists.”
Khodija*, 27, a widow and single mother, said the biggest risk women and girls face is that of domestic and gender-based violence. She is a member of Shanti Mohila, or “Peace Women”, a Rohingya women’s survivor group.
“Domestic violence and polygamy persist in the camps, with many women suffering from abuse and health problems as a result,” she told The New Humanitarian in late April.
“Using a safe latrine remains a challenge. Camps have communal toilet blocks with female facilities next to the male facilities. Men tease women on the way to [the] toilet, so women prefer to use the latrines at night. Many paths have no light, so this is very risky,” she said. “Pregnant women have nightmares using these toilets.”
Rahman, the commissioner, told The New Humanitarian that gender-based violence is still widespread in the camps. He said the government has tried to improve security for women and girls by deploying female police officers and establishing women-friendly spaces where “women and girls can learn about their rights”.
Rahman said the government is also working with UN bodies, including the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN’s migration agency (IOM), and the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), to prevent gender-based violence and raise awareness of risks.
Shortly after refugees began arriving in late 2017, the UN country team in Bangladesh established a network to tackle the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse that now includes more than 150 member organisations operating in the camps.
Funding cuts and school closures
Although the Bangladeshi government is in charge of refugee settlement, it heavily relies on international donors and aid organisations.
Some services were interrupted during the pandemic, and others have been impacted by budget cuts, aid groups told The New Humanitarian.
“Fund cuts are now a routine occurrence,” said Rahman.
A Joint Response Plan, which outlines objectives for humanitarian organisations involved in the Rohingya response, received 63% of the funding required for more than a million people in 2022. This year’s plan has received less than 16% of the required funding to date.
“We are hearing from some donors that they must cut funds here to prioritise the response in Ukraine and other parts of the world,” said van Manen, of Save the Children. “While we are concerned for the people of Ukraine and in other crises, the humanitarian needs for Rohingya refugees are greater than ever.”
Likewise, Action contre la faim has significantly reduced operations in the camps as a result of competing crises and the global economic downturn, according to Bangladesh country director Mohammad Akmal Shareef.
Part of the instability is fuelled by the limbo Rohingya are living in.
It’s still too unsafe to return to Myanmar – although the military government has offered to repatriate 1,000 refugees as a pilot scheme – and Rohingya have few options when it comes to work, education, or recreation.
“One of my friends often ponders, ‘Why are we alive as women?’” said Khodija, the Shanti Mohila member.
“Women have it more difficult than men in every setting,” she told The New Humanitarian in late April. “They have no ‘brainfood’ in the camps. Stress builds up as they have no work, no safe space to interact with friends, no activities to keep them busy. They can’t hang out outside like men do.”
Rohingya refugees are barred from working outside the camps, and refugee-run organisations seeking to provide education and employment opportunities are restricted by Bangladeshi authorities. Only organisations registered with the RRRC are allowed to provide education within the camps, and men often prohibit wives and daughters from leaving home.
In December 2021, the RRRC ordered the closure of all home-based and private learning centres and prohibited additional learning centres from opening.
“If we teach girls in the evening and the authorities happen to see, they say that girls do not need to be educated so much. They do not like girls to leave their homes.”
The government said such centres – an estimated 3,000 – did not maintain “standards of education”.
But according to Asmida, a teacher at the community-based Rohingya Union for Women Education and Development (RUWED) who uses only one name, “there is not much actual learning taking place in the [government-approved] learning centres”.
RUWED, which provides livelihood and personal safety training to women and girls in the camps, has faced pressure from camp authorities to cease their efforts to fill the education gap. Asmida said several local and international aid organisations have called the police to prevent RUWED from holding lessons.
She declined to name the aid organisations for fear of retaliation against RUWED.
“If we teach girls in the evening and [the authorities] happen to see, they say that girls do not need to be educated so much. They do not like girls to leave their homes,” Asmida said. “If we had more facilities in the [community-based] centres, we could teach the girls more skills. Then they could become self-reliant and find peace in their lives.”
Khodija said women and girls are desperate for education and opportunities to learn a trade.
“Access to education is crucial for the women in the camps, but many face barriers in attending school due to safety concerns or lack of permission,” she said.
“To address this, door-to-door or community-based education services could be implemented, allowing women to learn from the safety of their homes,” Khodija said. “Providing education opportunities could empower women to gain knowledge and skills, ultimately leading to greater agency and opportunities for themselves and their families.”
Absent any other work opportunities, some Rohingya women seek jobs at aid organisations, where superiors sometimes expect sex in exchange for employment.
“There’s a sense of entitlement [among Bangladeshi aid workers] to helping themselves to women in the camps, because they are hosting them,” one international aid worker, who requested anonymity, told The New Humanitarian.
“They know they won’t be held accountable. They know they are in a far more powerful position than the victims.”
Anoara Begum, a Rohingya refugee who spoke to The New Humanitarian in 2021, said she received multiple requests for sex from Bangladeshi men who were recruiting her to work at Oxfam, as well as at other aid organisations.
After she complained to Oxfam, the organisation initially stopped responding to her. In December 2021**, Oxfam said it was investigating Begum’s allegations but declined to give further details. “The delay in the handling of the allegation was unacceptable,” Oxfam spokesperson Tricia O’Rourke told The New Humanitarian at the time.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of sources who feared retaliation.
(**An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Oxfam said in December 2022 that it was investigating Begum's allegations. Oxfam said this in December 2021. This corrected version was published on 17 May 2023.)
With additional reporting from Verena Hölzl in Cox’s Bazar and Jacob Goldberg in Bangkok.
Edited by Paisley Dodds and Jacob Goldberg.