Refugee and migrant women are known to be at heightened risk of being subjected to sexual and gender-based violence. Their vulnerability as women is compounded by the violence they risk suffering both while traveling insecure routes when leaving their homeland or when staying in places that lack basic security, such as overcrowded camps without adequate lighting or separated spaces for women.
Rohingya refugee and migrant women are no exception. Indeed, given their status as women, stateless and part of an ethno-religious minority, Rohingya women (and girls) are particularly vulnerable to a wide range of sexual and gender-based violence that can affect not only their physical and psychological development but may also restrict the socio-economic opportunities available to them both within Myanmar and their new country of residence.
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. The country’s military-drafted 1982 Citizenship Act excluded them from Myanmar’s 135 recognized ethnic groups, effectively making them stateless. Then, after decades of discrimination and disenfranchisement, roughly 140,000 Rohingya fled their homes in northwestern Rakhine state in 2012 when sectarian violence reached deadly heights. The majority ended up in government-designated camps for internally displaced persons near the state capital, Sittwe (where many still live in fragile structures today). Fresh rounds of violence have flared since, seeing thousands of Rohingya departing by sea, aiming to reach Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia, and contributing to the tragic “boat people” humanitarian crisis that made headlines around the world earlier this year.
Precarious political climate
To better grasp the plight of Rohingya refugees and migrant women, sexual and gender-based violence should be understood in the context of the country’s political climate, which exacerbates the vulnerability of women and girls to abuse and discrimination.
Though 50 years of military dictatorship formally ended in 2011, and despite a “crushing” election win early this month by Nobel Prize-winning former opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, Myanmar’s army-drafted constitution ensures a powerful part of the country’s bureaucracy remains under military control, reports the NY Times.
It is a climate such that the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar in March this year noted the “increasing influence of extreme religious nationalist movements in the political process”. She also noted an “apparent lack of action taken against disturbing public statements from religious leaders and members of political parties that could amount to incitement of hatred against minorities”.
A newly enacted Bill that purportedly seeks to protect race and religion is one example showing how the State systematically implements discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities and against women. This bill is composed of four laws that restrict individual rights in regards to choices in the area of family planning, religious conversion and marriage (the state regulates marriage of Buddhist women to non-Buddhist men while polygamy practiced by non-Buddhist persons is criminalised). Amongst them, the Population Control Healthcare Bill is the first of the four yet to be enacted this past May.
Human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights last year investigated how the Rohingya population in Myanmar has already been undergoing severe monitoring and control through state-level regional orders (the drafting and implementation of which has involved the central government ) that adopted abusive restrictions on their freedom of movement, marriage and family planning for decades. As they are already denied access to livelihood, healthcare and education, these restrictions have serious implications particularly on the lives of women and girls in Rohingya communities.
For instance, invasive household spot checks by law enforcement agents are encouraged by the State to ensure record keeping of individual household members. Fortify Rights reports that these random spot checks are used as pretext for security forces to commit sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls, including incidents of gang rapes and forced breastfeeding of babies in front of uniformed police and army soldiers. The UN Security Council documented 14 cases of such gang rapes and attempted sexual assaults between January and June 2014 alone, and noted that in early 2015, a member of the military raped a 10 year-old-girl. Forced marriages of women and girls as well as cross-border trafficking for sexual exploitation have also been reported.
Furthermore, Fortify Rights’ investigation revealed the central government’s involvement in drafting and implementation of a Two-Child Policy. Officially however, such involvement by the central or state government was denied by the country’s Minister of Immigration and Population who nonetheless made headlines for his comments voicing support for it. This policy criminalises Rohingya Muslim families who have more than two children, leading some Rohingya women who become pregnant with a third child to seek unsafe abortions. The report by Fortify Rights also points to a 2005 regional order entitled “Population Control Activities” that instructs every regional clinic and hospital to enforce the use of contraceptives by Rohingya people.
Marriage involving Rohingya is also a State concern. Muslim couples wishing to marry must obtain official approval, which can sometimes take up to two years to secure and require large fees. Further, Section 188 of Penal Code bans Rohingya women from having children out of wedlock or having a third child. According to this law, a Rohingya woman who has such an unauthorized child will be prosecuted and subject to imprisonment for up to 10 years or fines or both. As a result, pregnant Rohingya women in these situations may seek unsafe abortions or leave to seek refuge elsewhere so they can carry through with their pregnancies.
Field interviews that I carried out with organizations that lend support for Rohingya refugee and migrant women in Thailand confirm this point. Migrant rights advocates have witnessed that, in recent years, pregnant women and girls are increasingly participating in precarious boat journeys. Some young mothers even travel with newly born infants. Informants also affirmed that some women rescued from smugglers’ boats have given birth during their detention at government shelters.
History teaches us that persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar has been on-going for nearly four decades. Consequently, diaspora communities have grown over the years, mainly in Asia. Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia host the largest communities while Malaysia has overtaken Saudi Arabia as the preferred destination in recent years.
Malaysia has the largest urban refugee population in the world. As of September 2015, there are some 153,850 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR Malaysia, with women making up 43% of that number and the proportion of female refugees having increased by 13% since June 2014. According to UNHCR, there are 50,030 officially registered Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia.
A representative of the Burmese Rohingya Association of Thailand further elaborated that if those who have been informally settled for generations and undocumented newcomers are included, presently there may be 100,000 Rohingyas residing in Malaysia. On the other hand, Thailand hosts a relatively smaller Rohingya population of 15,000–25,000 of which the largest proportion is concentrated in Bangkok.
Against this backdrop, Rohingya refugee and migrant women are further exposed to sexual and gender-based violence while fleeing Myanmar and in countries of asylum such as Thailand and/or Malaysia. Human Rights Watch reported that some women are lured or forced into taking boat trips to Malaysia where many of their male family members are believed to have settled after having fled Myanmar following the mass violence in 2012. Activists and media have reported rape incidents of young women and girls during their boat journeys and when harbouring at makeshift camps on the Malaysia-Thai border. Testimonies also suggest that smugglers have been taking advantage of Rohingya women and girls’ desperation by forcing them into marriage with older men who are willing to pay off their debts incurred during boat transportation.
My consultations with a Rohingya community leader and pro-women’s/migrants’ rights groups in Thailand gave me some insight into Rohingya family life and the challenges Rohingyas face in their country of asylum. Rohingyas traditionally live in a large extended family. Under the male patriarch leadership, traditional values of reciprocity and respect for seniority keep families together. In the country of asylum, however, such family structure is broken, and freshly married couples are left on their own to carry on their lives without the blessing or support of extended family. Rohingya men are commonly employed as labourers in fishery, construction and wholesales while others are self-employed as small-scale vendors such as roti sellers. Their fragile status in Thailand often forces these men to accept working conditions that are exploitative.
Similar to Malaysia, Thailand has a weak refugee protection policy framework while its migration policy is inconsistent. An interview with a representative from the Human Rights Sub-Committee on Ethnic Minorities, Stateless, Migrant Workers and Displaced Person of Thailand revealed that ad hoc implementation of pro-migrants’ rights measures has seen Rohingya individuals granted different legal statuses depending on when they proceeded with paperwork. Regardless of the status by Thai authorities accord them — as registered refugees/asylum-seekers with UNHCR, temporary resident/refugee or economic migrants — Rohingyas are subject to random arrests and long-term detention. From the policy perspective, therefore, it may be pertinent to consider strategies that enable Rohingya women to support the household economy while their male counterparts are locked away.
In receiving countries where women are visible and playing a pro-active economic role in society, Rohingya women are rarely seen working outside of the home while some women who have been living for decades in diaspora communities in Thailand and Malaysia may engage in vending in local fresh markets and do domestic work. But with limited education and social exposure, Rohingya refugee and migrant women are often highly dependent on their male family members and relatives for survival. Rohingya women’s lack of means for economic independence also defines their inter-household relationship in which they may not have much bargaining power with their husbands. Poverty coupled with unsteady legal status and limited family support imposes significant challenges for women’s married lives. Rohingya girls entering into early marriage in this environment are particularly vulnerable to domestic abuse and violence whereas it also imposes serious consequences on their reproductive health.
According to the Lawyers Council in Thailand, nevertheless, domestic violence cases or grievances related to sexual and gender-based violence involving Rohingya refugee and migrant women are rarely filed in Thailand. This is mainly because couples are afraid of being deported back to Myanmar and simply wish to avoid any interaction with authorities or due to lack of trust with law enforcement authorities in general. A Rohingya community leader explained that some Rohingya refugees and migrant women suffer from short-lived marriages due to poverty, instability and other hardships and they may have to remarry several times in order to ensure their own survival, while some women marry local Thai men in hopes of improving their prospects.
The road ahead
In recent years, the government of Myanmar has begun to seriously address policy challenges around the issues of violence against women at several levels. At the institutional level, legal reform has been initiated to address conflicted-related sexual violence by endorsing the UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in June 2014. In addition, drafting of Anti-Violence against Women legislation is in progress. The purpose of this initiative is to update existing law — which dated back to British occupation in 19th century — to international human rights standards so as to adequately address emerging forms and new trends of violence targeted at women in Myanmar society.
Government efforts have also extended to meeting the practical needs of women at the grass-roots level. While there is a promising plan to open a small-scale shelter by key local women’s NGOs such as Creative House, there is no government-run women’s shelter for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in the country. The Myanmar government has been engaged in preparatory activities to develop women’s shelters and capacity building of its staff in shelter management through collaborating with regional women’s organizations in Thailand and Singapore where such facilities are advanced.
Although these government efforts have been highly welcomed, effective policy measures will not be realized when there is no baseline data on the general status of violence against women in Myanmar. It is high time that the Myanmar government takes initiative to set up a nation-wide survey by tapping into expertise provided by international organizations.
Furthermore, it is clear that that improved and more coordinated policy efforts are needed among key government agencies and between women’s rights and pro-migrants groups and international agencies in order to begin combating the wider scope of sexual and gender-based violence that Rohingya refugee and migrant women are at risk of during flight and in the country of asylum.
Finally, more pro-active participation by the international community in general in processes of Rohingya women’s rights advancement is also necessary. Given the magnitude and seriousness of the challenges they face, the issue of sexual and gender based violence involving Rohingya women deserves more serious international attention. The recent history of the fight against gender violence teaches us that the indifference of the international community reinforces women’s vulnerability to further violence and abuse, and Rohingya women can definitely use our support to break through.