Q&A: World Vision Staff on Protecting Refugee Women and Girls from Gender-based Violence

By Syeda Farjana Ahmed and Karen Homer

Ruth Kimaathi and Backey Tripura lead World Vision’s work to prevent and address gender-based violence in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar district in southern Bangladesh that is home to almost 1 million Rohingya people. More than half of them are women and girls.

Ruth, a Kenyan psychologist, has worked with refugee women and children for almost a decade. Prior to joining World Vision in February 2019, she served with International Medical Corps for four years in South Sudan, supporting women and children displaced by years of civil conflict. Previously, she worked with the International Rescue Committee’s programme for Somali refugees in the massive camp in Dadaab, northern Kenya. She was also on staff for five years at the Nairobi General Hospital.

Backey is a senior manager who has worked with World Vision for six years in the Cox’s Bazar area—one of the poorest areas of Bangladesh even before the refugee influx in August 2017.

Background: Rohingya refugee women and girls have been exposed to widespread and severe forms of sexual violence in Myanmar before and during their exodus. In the camps where they now live, they continue to be at disproportionate risk of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, forced/child marriage, and exploitation and trafficking.[1]

More than 33,000 families in the camp are headed by women[2]—most of whom are widows—whose husbands were killed during their escape from Myanmar in August 2017. World Vision is working to prevent and address gender-based violence (GBV) among Rohingya refugees, having recently opened a safe space for women refugees who have experienced GBV, and others. To date, 30 adolescent boys and 125 men have been trained in GBV awareness and prevention—becoming advocates for their wives, mothers and sisters.

1. How do you relate to the Rohingya women with whom you are working?

Ruth:  I am a widow and a single woman living here in Bangladesh. When widows talk to me, I feel a connection with them. We share challenges that are unique to us. When it comes to parenting, I faced some of the challenges they face raising their children. And when they talk about identity and living in an unfamiliar place, I connect with them because I also do not belong here. Like them, I have had to adjust and learn many things.

Backey: Like the Rohingya, I come from a minority group. I have worked with gender-based violence survivors in my community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. When I hear the stories of violence, torture and child abuse among the Rohingya women and girls, it reminds me of my small community and their suffering. I relate to them as a woman, a mother and a sister.

2. Tell us about the situation for women and girls in the camps.

Ruth: The situation is similar to what I have seen in African refugee camps. Domestic violence against women and girls is common there, too. I think it is linked to their limited resources and helplessness. Men are not able to play their role of protecting their families. They think, ‘Instead of protecting my family, I am being protected.’ That comes with a lot of frustration that they project onto women and other more vulnerable people.

Backey: Initially, after the influx, we mostly heard stories about the violence that happened in Myanmar and on the refugees’ way to Bangladesh. Many women experienced or witnessed sexual assault. However, now almost two years later, we hear mostly about domestic violence against women and girls in the camps. Intimate partner violence, discriminatory cultural practices and gender discrimination due to religious norms are dominant. Mostly we hear about beating and harassment. Psychological violence does not receive much attention, but it is there, too.

Ruth: I believe that cases of marital rape exist in the camps, too. It might not get reported because women don’t understand that this is abuse.

Backey: In the camps, men try to protect their girls by marrying them off. Mothers say that the camp is unsafe for adolescent girls and they have nothing to do here. If their daughters get married, at least they will have a family, children and a house to live in. Parents think this is the best way to secure their daughter’s future.

3. You have both worked with vulnerable women in other contexts. What similarities and differences do you see?

Ruth: I see several similarities, especially when it comes to women’s movement around the camp. For example, men tell women not to go out because they will provoke other men to lust after them, which is a sin. This is similar to Somali culture in the Dadaab camp where women are compelled to cover their whole bodies, except for their eyes. They believe if a man sees a woman’s face, hair or feet, it will make the man lust for her. Therefore, a woman is provoking the man to commit sin. The refugees in both places share the same religion, but the practice is different here. Not all women here cover their whole bodies, but their movement is restricted for similar reasons.

I also see here how the lack of resources feeds domestic violence. Rohingya men shared in a recent community meeting that one reason women are being beaten is because they lack fuel or firewood to cook food for their husbands. I have seen in other contexts where domestic violence takes place due to scarcity of resources.

4. How was life different for Rohingya women in Myanmar compared to their lives in the camps today?

Backey: Violence against women must have existed there, but I think perhaps it was not as frequent because people were more emotionally stable before they were forced to flee to Bangladesh.

Ruth: In Myanmar, the social fabric and network were intact. That system protected women in one way or the other. People lived with their parents or relatives there and that might not be the case here. When they fled, the protection system broke down and women are now left to protect themselves.

5. There are an estimated 33,000 women-headed households in the camps. How are they feeding their children? Are they allowed to work?

Backey: Some NGOs, including World Vision, provide short-term employment for women and some livelihood skills training, but this is hardly enough for survival.

Ruth: Like all the refugees, women are dependent on relief aid. Officially, they are not allowed to work outside the camps or start small businesses there. Even if some women get earning opportunities with NGOs, the community does not allow them to work. The few women who have the guts to go out and work are bullied and look down upon. It’s a way to stop them from working.

We have lot to do to help women, especially those who have no men at home to earn some income. Women who rely upon community support risk having lower self-esteem and self-respect. They are more vulnerable to sexual abuse. A woman might think, ‘I am a widow and I have to rely on men in the community to help my family after they manage for themselves.’ That puts her in a very vulnerable position. Formal education for women is obviously important as well as psychosocial education will help the society to understand the position these women are in. If the community stops accusing or bullying women, they can get jobs and run her own family. We have to create awareness and change their behaviors through advocacy.

6.  How is World Vision supporting women who are experiencing gender-based violence in the camps?

Ruth: World Vision has just opened a safe space for women where they can come and feel free to talk with others over a cup of tea. We provide counseling and information about how women experiencing gender-based violence can get help. We are trying to make this room as comfortable as possible so that women feel welcomed and safe. They also receive practical information about good nutrition for them and their children. We are also going to start skills training, including tailoring lessons and cooking classes on how to make nutritious food with locally available ingredients.

Backey: We are also getting men and boys involved as advocates for women. We’ve trained 30 adolescent boys and 125 men on gender-based violence awareness and prevention. One boy said that he used to think it was normal for his father to beat his mother. He never thought of it as violence. Some men shared that they were not aware that they caused their wives psychological distress by their actions, for example forcing a woman to do something against her will. Now they identify this as abuse. Some participants said that that men and women should be treated with equal care. So, we’re seeing small shifts in attitudes already. Men and boys can become champions for their wives, sisters and mothers.

7.  Do you find your work in the camps with World Vision fulfilling?             

Ruth: It is tough but very fulfilling because the objective, mission and vision of World Vision are all about extending the love of Christ to the vulnerable. As a Christian serving these women through World Vision, I feel like I am doing what I should be doing. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. Rohingya women are very resilient. They have gone through a lot. I see women coming to our safe space with gloomy faces. As we sit down and talk, I notice their facial expressions starts to change. as When I see a woman leaving the safe space with a smile, it makes my day. We touch their lives one at a time by making someone feel better.

Backey: That’s so true. Yesterday an old woman came to our women’s safe space. She was trembling, and I asked her if she needed medical treatment. She told me that she came to sit and talk to other women. In the women’s safe space, she feels safe and welcomed.

Ruth: Yes, I think she also felt loved and wanted.

8. How can women worldwide support Rohingya refugee women and girls?

Backey: Women worldwide can do at least three important things to help Rohinya women. First, they can pray. They can pray that girls and women will be safe from violence in the camps. Please pray, too, that attitudes will begin to change, especially about child marriage. We need prayers for a long-term solution to this crisis, and that the refugees will be able to return in peace to Myanmar.

Ruth: Women can donate to World Vision’s work to help Rohingya women and girls in the camps. We are grateful for the generous donations that enabled us to open our new safe space for women where they can come to talk about abuse they may have suffered and how to prevent it. Thirdly, women abroad can tell their elected officials that the situation of Rohingya women and their families is important to them as voters, and that they want their government to keep advocating and pressing for solutions to this crisis.

[1] 2019 Joint Response Plan for Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis, p. 29.

[2] UNHCR Bangladesh Refugee Emergency Population Factsheet, 28 February 2019.