Despite the number of COVID-19 cases in Rakhine State being quite low, the impact on rural food production and the livelihoods of thousands of farm labourers, who are mostly women, is immense. The loss of food production in the State could potentially push families into further poverty and produce further malnutrition in a State of Myanmar that already has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the country. Additionally, the growth of women’s empowerment, which is strongly linked to financial contributions to the household, will decline.
Women and girls in Rakhine State face inequalities in many areas, such as in employment and payment, division of domestic labour, decision making and participation. Those are likely to further increase in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. An area of specific concern is in the education of girls and boys, from poor families, who do not have the technical infrastructure and capacity to support, especially with the continuous internet blackouts across the State. Deployed in an operational environment characterised by ongoing volatility, COVID-19 prevention, treatment and containment efforts have faced multiple difficulties. Mistrust of government officers by communities, restrictions on humanitarian access, limited health services, coupled with targeted attacks on healthcare workers and facilities have proved to be serious operational challenges.
The current health system does not have the capacity to deal with an increasing number of COVID19 cases and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) systems across the State (especially in the cramped conditions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps) require major upgrades in order to reduce the potential for spread of the disease. In addition, there is a lack of emphasis on ways to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 due to higher concern on the current conflict issues and upcoming elections, which causes fear and creates potential for rumours causing further stigmatisation and discrimination of certain population groups.
Many prevention measures for COVID-19 rely on access to safe places for self-isolation or quarantine. Women's limited agency within the family, gender-based violence and gender stereotypes remain widespread within both Rohingya and Rakhine communities, and women are underrepresented in decision-making bodies and lack ability to influence and impact decisions and programming that ultimately affect their lives and needs. The restrictions on movement, as well as social and cultural restrictions placed particularly on women and girls in communities within Rakhine State will be exacerbated by additional movement restrictions in place to curtail the virus and prevent transmission in communities. It is important that movement restrictions related to COVID-19 do not adversely affect humanitarian responses and humanitarian needs being met.
Gender based violence is common and widely accepted in Myanmar. Globally, intimate partner violence (IPV) may be the most common type of violence women and girls experience during emergencies.1 In the context of COVID-19 quarantine and isolation measures, IPV has the potential to dramatically increase for women and girls. Life-saving care and support to Gender Based Violence (GBV) survivors is already extremely difficult to find in Rakhine, and may be disrupted even further when front-line service providers and systems such as health, policing and social welfare are overburdened and preoccupied with handling COVID-19 cases. Restrictions on mobility also mean that women are particularly exposed to intimate-partner violence at home with limited options for accessing support services.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on top of the already existing humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, as well as the existing prevalence of malnutrition, poverty, pre-existing health conditions and lower access to healthcare facilities compared to other parts of Myanmar, places communities residing in Rakhine at higher risk of COVID-19. This is especially in the many IDP camps in Rakhine, where overcrowded shelters and poor sanitation conditions pose a serious risk of the disease spreading quickly. Considering the significant expansion of the protection crisis across much of Rakhine State, outstanding challenges in addressing the root causes of the conflicts, challenges in humanitarian access in Rakhine, combined with the added impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and the increased risks for those most vulnerable in Rakhine State, significant humanitarian needs are expected to persist among all affected communities throughout 2020.