For the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, we are handing over the mic to women and men on the front line, those who are battling COVID-19 and the pandemic of violence against women and girls that’s relentless and rising. These are the voices of survivors, essential workers, and leaders, telling us what’s urgent, and how we can stop the escalating violence, recover and rebuild from COVID-19.
Minara: Community outreach volunteer, Rohingya refugee
“I was five months pregnant when we fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh. It took seven days, walking through the countryside. It was a devastating journey – we didn’t even have proper food to eat. I was broken and exhausted.
Upon reaching the camps in Cox’s Bazar, I joined a nutrition programme. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with humanitarian actors from NGOs and the United Nations. I have learned a lot about gender equality and human rights. When we were in Myanmar, we were not aware of these things, and Rohingya women didn’t know they have rights. Having participated in many training sessions about gender-based violence, child marriage, and protection against sexual exploitation from UN Women and UNHCR, I am more confident and determined to serve my community.
During this pandemic, I have conducted awareness raising sessions with Rohingya women and girls in the refugee camps about personal cleanliness and hygiene, handwashing, and how to cope if anyone contracts COVID-19. I have also provided information about preventing sexual exploitation and abuse, since there is a higher risk now with fewer humanitarian actors present in the camp due to lockdown measures. I inform women how and where to report abuse, including child marriage.
Child marriage is one of the main reasons for domestic violence, forced and unsafe pregnancies, and abortions in the refugee camps here. I am responsible for providing awareness sessions for 40 blocks within my assigned camp. Due to COVID-19, we prefer one-on-one sessions, keeping a safe physical distance and maintaining hygiene measures during the sessions. I support and refer a victim of child marriage to the Camp in Charge offices and I refer survivors to the UN Women “Multi-Purpose Women Centre” where they can get psychosocial support and life skills training.
Last week, a 16-year-old girl came to me and said her parents were forcing her to marry a man twice her age. I met with her parents and informed them about the negative consequences of child marriage. I told them it would be devastating for her and her child’s mental and physical health if she got pregnant. Divorce rates are higher with child marriages. It is also illegal (to marry a girl under 18 years), so they would not be able to register the marriage. Without registration, the marriage wouldn’t be legally valid, and if she got divorced, she would not even receive alimony.
During the conversation, I discovered that the parents wanted to marry off their daughter because they were worried about her security. I told them that the marriage had a higher chance of failing, and then she would be in even greater trouble. Finally, I succeeded in convincing them.
I believe that Rohingya women and girls are incredibly bright – their minds are sharper than computers. But they need access to education to improve their situation.”
UN Women programmes work to tackle gender-based violence and support survivors
Minara* is a Community Outreach volunteer and Rohingya refugee and survivor who fled the conflict in Myanmar in August 2017. As a volunteer in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, she is part of a UN Women programme that empowers refugee women to lead and participate in decision-making processes in the refugee camps. The community outreach volunteers like Minara provide critical information to refugees about prevention of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse, where to seek help when women and girls experience violence, as well as disaster preparedness, since Bangladesh is at heightened risk of climate disasters such as floods and cyclones.
Since the coronavirus pandemic reached the country, community volunteers have become trusted sources of information for refugees on COVID-19 prevention. Minara is also the founder and leader of a Rohingya women’s community-based organization that promotes their education and leadership.
Today, an estimated 861,545 Rohingya refugees live in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh; over half of them are women and girls. UN Women and UNHCR are working together to ensure gender-responsive camp site management and to protect and build resilience among refugee and displaced women and girls. Our work in Bangladesh is generously funded by the Governments of Canada, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Australia, the National Committees for UN Women in Australia, Japan, Iceland, Singapore, Sweden, USA, as well as the Tingari Silverton Foundation, towards delivering humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh for Rohingya refugee and host community women and girls.
What can you do to help?
- Support and recognize women in your community who are protecting women and girls as first responders, even during this pandemic.
- Raise awareness that a girl is a child, not a bride!
- Donate to UN Women to support programmes that empower and protect women and girls
- Challenge and speak up against violence against women and girls in your own home, neighbourhood, online and in public space
* The protagonist has only provided her first name, Minara.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Minara Featured Photo Credit: UN Women/Mahmudul Karim