In Bangladesh's refugee camps, communities are working together to empower women and reduce gender-based violence -- through the creation of Safe Spaces for women and girls, and gender transformative training for men and boys.
During times of protracted crisis, women and girls are at heightened risk of discrimination, abuse and violence. When communities break down, whether because of conflict, famine, natural disaster, or lack of economic opportunities, it is usually women and girls who suffer the most.
But in Cox's Bazar District, Bangladesh, where almost one million Rohingya refugees live, women and men are working together to change this.
At the Safe Spaces for women and girls, built by Relief International and run by refugee volunteers and host community staff, refugee women and girls come together to talk about their experiences and are offered support and training opportunities.
In addition, men lead sessions for other men on the importance of empowering women in the camps and preventing violence in their community.
Creating a support network
Taslima is a Gender Based Violence (GBV) Program Associate for RI. Her job focuses on empowering women and girls and trying to prevent and mitigate the risk of GBV in the camps. She runs regular meet ups and structured awareness raising modules at the Safe Spaces, so that women and girls to come, learn, and discuss their lives and concerns with others.
"Given the COVID-19 situation, we normally try to keep to a 15-participant maximum in each session... but the number of participants often increases because the women and girls in this camp are very enthusiastic."
These women and girls come together to support one another, and to learn about the issues other women are facing.
"Unfortunately, physical abuse is a big issue here. There is also a high prevalence of emotional abuse too. On top of this, since the start of COVID-19, polygamy has drastically increased in this community," states Taslima solemnly.
The Safe Spaces offer refugee women and girls an opportunity to talk about these issues, and plan how they can take action to support each other, and others in the camps.
Since creating the Safe Spaces, Taslima says "we have prevented a lot of child marriages in this camp... In fact, it is the women of the community who have prevented those child marriages."
Providing New Opportunities
Beyond providing opportunities for discussions, these spaces also offer numerous classes for women to attend that can help improve their home lives, or even provide a source of income. The sewing classes and gardening lessons provided at the spaces are particularly popular.
"Poverty is a factor behind GBV here, so the money these women earn can help reduce conflict in their families," says Taslima.
Hasina regularly comes to the Safe Space. "I can come here in my leisure time, spend time with other women, and also learn how to sew clothes," she says.
Among other items, Hasina makes Bajus [Rohingya dresses] for herself. "I use painted blocks to paint the fabric... [then] I take the measurement. Next, I cut off the body and arms' lengths from the fabric. Finally, I sew them together."
Amina, another woman who regularly comes to the Safe Space makes Katha [thin blankets] that can be used for numerous different purposes; "I don't sell these products. We use them in our family."
Amina continues, "[At the Safe Spaces] we can discuss our problems and share our concerns and feel protected.... Everyone at the Safe Space listens to my concerns... And, we also learn sewing and handicrafts here too."
Training the Whole Community
Men in this community are also playing an important role in empowering women and reducing violence and abuse. RI has empowered 84 male local leaders including imans, majhis [local leaders] and teachers to act as "Change Makers" in the community, where they disseminate messaging promoting ideas of gender equality.
Mohammed is one of these Change Makers. "The *bhais *[brothers] from RI taught us about the impact of Gender-Based Violence issues in our community."
"These issues are a serious problem my community is facing. I think the mothers and sisters of my community can be safe through better awareness [from men]."
Mohammed takes the information he learned from RI trainers and from other men in the training and uses it to talk to men in his community.
"I lead [informal] sessions to raise awareness among men and boys. Wherever I find them, be it an open field or a tea-stall, I talk to them about the harmfulness of GBV."
"I feel good knowing that I am doing something necessary and important for my community."
Looking to the future
Taslima is hopeful that between the Change Makers Program and the Women and Girls Safe Spaces, with women and men working together for gender equality, things will slowly improve for everyone in the community.
"I think together we are leaving a very positive impact on this community!"
The Women and Girls Safe Spaces and the Change Makers activity in Bangladesh's refugee camps are implemented in partnership with UNHCR.