The tragedy of the Rohingya refugee crisis, coupled with monsoon season, led United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to say during his visit to the camps in July, “nothing could have prepared me for the scale of the crisis and extent of suffering.”
A United Nations fact-finding mission has called for an investigation into genocide against the Rohingya Muslim community. It’s an extremely rare allegation, but one that underscores the gravity of the human rights violations against this minority group. One year ago in a mass exodus, 700,000 Rohingya — the majority children, women and the elderly — fled their homes in Myanmar with barely more than the clothes on their backs. They now inhabit the world’s largest refugee camp settlement, what was a previous elephant sanctuary on the slopes of Cox’s Bazar in neighboring Bangladesh.
Even against this backdrop, it may be safe to say that few people are harder hit than the women in these camps. These women and girls have survived gang rape, mass killings, seen family members murdered, and witnessed their homes and entire villages leveled.
Women’s safety and needs are often neglected around the world, and refugee camps are no exception. Ongoing incidents of gender-based violence are reported by the hundreds weekly. Women aren’t safe doing the most basic chores like collecting water, or using toilets and showers, many of which lack a roof and a lockable door. To avoid using the toilet, Rohingya women suffer abdominal pain and infections that can lead to kidney damage; or resort to defecation by their tents, which increases the risk of major disease outbreaks — especially during the heavy rains.
It’s paramount that we take into consideration the layered needs of Rohingya refugee women, and even more specifically, the particular trauma and needs of women who are pregnant and breastfeeding.
My organization has been working with the Rohingya in Bangladesh since the beginning, training Rohingya themselves as community health workers to go out into the community to locate pregnant woman, including those tragically pregnant through rape. Out of shame from their situations, many avoid leaving their tents to seek critical antenatal care. In the three camps Food for the Hungry has been assigned, we have identified over 1,600 pregnant women, including nearly 600 pregnant and lactating women in need of health and nutrition assistance. We have been able to get 84 percent of them into prenatal care and counseling, including 93 percent of them to at least two prenatal visits in their makeshift homes, in just a three-month timespan between April and June.
The importance of antenatal care can’t be overstated. The World Health Organization affirms that "all women need access to antenatal care in pregnancy, skilled care during childbirth, and care and support in the weeks after childbirth." Antenatal and postpartum health care can prevent most complications that cause 75 percent of all maternal deaths.
As other institutions have pointed out, there is no standalone budget for meeting women’s specific needs in the Rohingya refugee response effort — but there needs to be.
We can never forget what these women have been through, what they currently endure, and the additional help they desperately need. In the face of allegations of genocide against the Rohingya, I urge Congress and the administration not only to continue funding emergency efforts in Bangladesh, but also see more involvement from USAID and the state department in addressing the unique needs of refugee women. In the midst of unimaginable hardship, they continue to carry and care for the next generation.