Tens of thousands of stateless Muslim Rohingya women and girls who fled persecution in Myanmar for safety in Bangladesh are facing abuse and sexual violence at the hands of Bangladeshis and members of their own refugee communities with little chance of redress, a human rights group said in its latest report.
Lacking documentation and not recognised as refugees by the Bangladeshi government, they are routinely attacked, raped and threatened by locals when they collect water and firewood or even go to the latrines, according to Bangladesh: The Silent Crisis by Refugees International (RI).
“Sexual violence, early and forced marriages and domestic violence are endemic in both the host and refugee communities,” according to the report, “but the stressful living conditions and the lack of access to the police or justice system for refugee women increase the risk of abuses.”
Due to frequent arrests and the migration of male family members in search of work, there is a high number of widows and women-headed households among Rohingya communities, RI said.
“Without a breadwinner, women are forced to engage in begging and sex work and children are sometimes trafficked for domestic work in order to survive.”
In fact, since a crackdown last year where the authorities forcibly evicted thousands from a makeshift camp, RI said reports of sexual violence against unregistered refugees have increased, yet services remain at a bare minimum.
However, Firoz Salahuddin, Bangladesh's Rohingya Repatriate Commissioner, said they were being treated properly by local people in the area who have rallied to support the Rohingyas over the years, providing them with work.
ABUSED AT HOME AND ABROAD
The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority from Rakhine State in the west of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Rights groups say they are one of the peoples most discriminated against in the world, with Myanmar's former military junta depriving them of free movement, education, employment and citizenship.
Hundreds of thousands have been seeking shelter in Bangladesh with no refugee status and little protection for the past three decades. According to Bangladeshi officials, there are almost 25,000 Rohingyas who have refugee status.
They are housed in two camps in the popular southeastern beach resort of Cox's Bazar and receive food rations and other aid from the United Nations.
Still, the women in these camps are disadvantaged, RI said, because of family-based ration cards which are usually in the name and control of the male head of household.
This makes it “difficult for women to separate from abusive husbands without losing their ration,” the report said.
The situation is much worse for women who are part of the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Rohingyas who live outside the camps in local villages or in squalid unofficial settlements.
With no legal rights and refugee status, “a climate of fear and impunity pervades... reinforced by the lack of accountability and oversight” according to the report.
NO LEGAL RECOURSE
Lynn Yoshikawa, an author of the report, recently returned from visiting the area.
She told TrustLaw that a woman who had been attacked and raped when she was trying to get water “couldn't go to the police because she had no documents so she tried to meet with the local politician at the sub-district level but he didn't do anything about the case.”
Tension between locals and the Rohingyas over scarce water and fuel resources also affects women and girls, who primarily do these domestic chores.
In Leda – one of two major informal settlements – Yoshikawa said she met three women who had been attacked by a man with a stick for trying to use a village well.
“The water supply had been blocked by a local thug so there had been no water available for the site, home to 13,000 people, for one week,” she told TrustLaw.
“Refugees were forced to risk going to (neighboring) villages to fetch water. The women had defended themselves in the attack with their metal water jars, which had deep dents.”
Yoshikawa said there is no access to a legal recourse for unregistered Rohingya women, even in the case of sexual violence.
“There is no choice for survivors but to cope because they have to feed and care for their families.”