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Promoting the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in the Rohingya Refugee Crisis in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

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On 25 August 2017, the military offensive in Rakhine state, Myanmar, targeting the Rohingya escalated and the violence unleashed upon them forced them to flee across the border to Bangladesh. To date 861,545 Rohingya refugees live in camps in Cox’s Bazar, over half of which are women and girls and an estimated 80% of whom are women and children. The refugees reported massive atrocities of extrajudicial executions, killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and destruction of property based on which they face deep trauma and haunting memories.
The speed and scale of the influx of refugees resulted in a critical humanitarian emergency, and now three years on we honour the resilience of the Rohingya refugees and the generosity of the Government and people of Bangladesh for hosting them. Yet, today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and related increase in tension and reduced access to meeting basic needs, women’s security risks in the camps and host community are unfortunately reaching new heights.

Women, Peace and Security Context in Cox’s Bazar

The Rohingya community is highly conservative in their gender norms and practices. Practices such as purdah and perceptions around women’s honour (izzot) are restricting the mobility of women and their access to life-saving assistance, services, information and decision-making.
Adolescent girls, young women, and women heads of households are some of the most at-risk in this context.
Conservative groups of male youth and men that are policing women in the settlements, enforcing the wearing of burqas at all times and questioning women’s presence in public spaces, thus further restricting the mobility of women and girls.
On top of the atrocities of sexual and gender based violence Rohingya women and girls faced during armed conflict and displacement in Rakhine State, Myanmar, they now in Bangladesh face new risks. Due to limited viable livelihood opportunities for refugees, women and girls are at risk of being forced to engage in survival sex, begging, illegal drug trade and the selling of their remaining assets and relief items as a means to mitigate economic and food insecurity. Women and children are also at heightened risk of becoming victims of human trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation or child and forced marriage, as well as polygamy for the same reasons. Human trafficking for marriage, sex work and labour is reported to be on the increase. Domestic violence is also the most reported form of GBV in the camps according to the most recent GBV Information Management Systems report.
In addition, GBV risks are high in the congested camps.
Women continue to report feeling unsafe to use WASH facilities that are not adequately separated by gender and not well lit at night. To avoid being seen bathing and defecating, women reportedly wash and defecate inside their shelters, restrict food and water intake and restrict movement during their menstrual period. Women face barriers in fulfilling their sexual and reproductive rights, due to restrictive social norms around family planning, as well as attitudinal and physical barriers to accessing maternal health and reproductive health services.
GBV service provision has improved over the years. The proportion of survivors receiving services has increased in many sectors including Health care, mental health, care for child survivors, and basic needs support. However, access to police and security services has been low. Rohingya women have little confidence in the ability of police and camp authorities to respond to their needs, and many women fear they will be arrested or deported to Myanmar if they report a crime in Bangladesh. Furthermore, the stigma for GBV survivors is high. When perpetrators are known, other factors prevent women from seeking access to justice.
Rohingya refugee women and girls who are survivors of SGBV, including conflict related sexual violence, have limited access to formal legal justice and rule of law for the crimes perpetrated against them - whether committed while they were still in Rakhine State Myanmar, during the journey to Bangladesh or upon arrival in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Various reports and studies have confirmed that although the existing legal framework should apply to Rohingya women and children survivors of GBV and trafficking, in practice the current legal mechanisms which should generally act to provide protection from violence, appear to be inaccessible or unutilized by the Rohingya refugees. Reports have also confirmed denial to Rohingya refugees from accessing the Police and courts to file or proceed with a complaint against rights violations. Yet, there are positive developments in international justice processes led by the International Criminal Court, International Court of Justice, and the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar, in recognising injustices perpetrated against the Rohingya, including conflict related sexual violence, with investigations and evidence collection ongoing including through testimony collection and victim representation by Rohingya women in Cox’s Bazar, including SGBV survivors.
Local Bangladeshi host communities have been on the frontline of the response. The host communities were very active in collecting food, household items and money for refugees at the beginning of the influx. However, tension between the refugees and host community continue to rise as the host community is now severely overburdened by the refugee influx. Basic services that were available to host community and the old refugees prior to this influx have been severely strained, wages for day labourers have gone down, and natural resources such as water and forests have been severely depleted. Despite the increase in tensions,
Bangladeshi women from the host communities declared their willingness to be more involved in the response, especially if it could also result in benefits for the host communities.