‘My dignity is destroyed’: the scourge of sexual violence in Cox’s Bazar
With rape and domestic abuse endemic in the lawless refugee camp, safe spaces have been set up to help the women affected
In a small, dark hut within the world’s largest refugee settlement, a fan hums quietly as Faizal speaks. He says that last month his 12-year-old sister was raped here in their home. The little girl sits in silence beside him wearing a pink headscarf and red dress.
Rape is endemic in the camp in Cox’s Bazar. Although the exact number of victims is unknown, many Rohingya women who experienced rape and torture fleeing Myanmar report facing sexual violence again in their new home.
Earlier this year, 490 girls and 12,386 adult Rohingya refugees (75% of them female) were recorded as having received support on issues related to gender-based violence in safe spaces for women set up by Unicef.
Oxfam reported that nearly a quarter of women in the camp said they do not feel safe in their living spaces and that hundreds of incidents of gender-based violence are reported each week.
In Myanmar, the Rohingya lived in well-spaced village communities where there was law and order. But the mass uprooting of the Rohingya from their homes, combined with the overcrowding of the camps (Cox’s Bazar is home to more than a million people), has brought increased risk for women.
Faizal says the family is now stigmatised and that his sister cannot leave their small home. The smell of lentils wafts through the house, as he rests his hand on a bag of rice, recounting what happened to the girl.
“It was late afternoon, after it got dark. There were no senior members present at the house at that time, just a few kids and other women … [My sister] was dragged into the kitchen and the lights were switched off. She screamed and passed out,” he says.
The incident is particularly controversial as the family claim she was raped by Bangladeshi army troops. An investigation has been launched and plain-clothes police keep watch outside the house.
Lt Col Abdullah ibn Zaid, a spokesperson for the Bangladesh Armed Forces, said it was investigating and would punish any soldiers who were found guilty.
Workers at “women-only safe spaces” in camp 11, run by ActionAid, say that rape in the camp mostly goes unreported due to cultural and religious sensitivities.
Minaj Huq, a psycho-social support administrator at one of the safe spaces, says sexual violence is underreported because “there is a lot of stigma and taboo associated with it”.
“Women fear that if someone else finds out, they will lose their reputation in the camps. I would estimate that about 20–30% of the women who attend this safe space are victims of sexual violence, but they will not always tell us about it,” she says.
Another aid worker, who asked to remain anonymous, says: “Sometimes what happens if a rape case is reported is that the family try to get the girl married to the perpetrator … Also, if a girl is raped by someone here [in the refugee camp], they have to live with that man for ever. Her dignity is taken by this man.”
At one of the safe spaces, between 45 and 70 women come through the door daily. As well as rape, another major issue is domestic violence.
“There are some theories that because men have no work in the camps and have nothing else to do, they are frustrated. Males know that there is very little policing in the camps and no judicial system, so they can get away with it with impunity. They’re not accountable to anyone,” says Anika Shama, a team leader with the Danish NGO DanChurchAid, who works in one of the safe spaces.
She adds that perpetrators were “taking advantage of a more lawless environment”.
“In the camps in general, it’s really not safe. We know from focus group discussions with men and women that it’s definitely not safe for women to move around at night, especially when they go to the toilets. Anything can happen – they can be abducted or harassed. At night a woman definitely needs someone to accompany them when they go to the toilet.”
The Guardian spoke to several women who had been beaten by their husbands, with problems emerging when they arrived in the Cox’s Bazar area. One woman, speaking anonymously, said her marriage was good until they came here.
“In Myanmar my husband would work all day. I used to do chores and we had a good time together but, after coming here, my husband did not have anything to do and started having relationships with other women,” she says.
When she confronted him, he beat her. “In Myanmar there was a law that said you could not marry twice, but here there is no such thing … Men and women are going between camps saying that they are unmarried so they can have affairs.
“[Violence] is increasing here and adultery is a major reason. The big challenge is the law. There is none.”
Another woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, says she met her husband here in the camps. She cradles her baby on her lap as she explains the violence once got so bad that the child’s father hit her in the face with a heavy stone.
“My husband was married in Myanmar, but his wife died there. When we came here, after about four months we married. It was good for about a month and a half, but then he started beating and torturing me,” she says.
The pair have now separated. Charities intervene in many of these cases to offer mediation, part of a broad spectrum of work they do.
Cases are referred to other agencies: in the case of camps 11 and 12 this is UNHCR. They lead the mediation process and include camp officials, religious leaders and mahjis – senior Rohingya leaders – in order to try to resolve the issues. They sit down with the couple to discuss how they can move forward, either together or apart.
Unicef operates four safe spaces for women, and other organisations provide similar services. But for many, the struggle is finding the bravery to come forward and tell their stories.
Faizal says his family has been plunged into darkness by what happened. “My sister has been down and ashamed of it. She is depressed and sometimes suicidal. She thinks: ‘What is the point of living when my dignity has been destroyed?’”
The children’s mother leans forward, covers her face with her scarf and cries. As she does so, her 12-year-old daughter wipes her eyes too. “I cannot go out and my daughter always talks of dying,” she says.