UN Migration Agency Helps Rohingya Women Organize in Bangladesh Camps
Cox’s Bazar – Over 100 Rohingya women have formed a first-of-its-kind committee to ensure women and girls have a direct pathway and communication channel to UN project managers without having to go through male leaders in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar refugee camps.
The committee, supported by IOM, the UN Migration Agency, follows months of on-the-ground research and informal discussions with Rohingya women in the camps about what kind of platform would enable them to raise concerns with senior UN staff, without breaching cultural gender norms.
“We feel better now,” said committee chairwoman Muriom, after the official opening of an IOM-funded women-run community centre in Leda in the south of Cox’s Bazar, which the committee will oversee. “Before we did not get this kind of opportunity. Now we have this [committee and centre] and we know how to use them to change camp life,” she added.
Almost a million Rohingya refugees now live in Cox’s Bazar after atrocities in Myanmar in late August 2017 sent over 700,000 of the Muslim minority fleeing across the border to villages and camps in Bangladesh, where over 200,000 Rohingya were already living after escaping earlier bouts of violence.
The committee includes both recent refugees, who arrived as part of the mass flight from Myanmar in 2017, and those who arrived amid earlier waves of violence dating back to the 1990s.
Education levels and religious conservatism vary significantly between individuals, families and communities, but most Rohingya women do not read or write and many are discouraged from leaving family shelters. Few have much experience of speaking out in public, and most rely on male family members or community leaders to raise concerns on their behalf.
For organisations like IOM, a lead agency in the Rohingya response, finding a way to ensure women’s opinions, concerns and needs reach those charged with managing and developing the refugee settlements, can be a major challenge.
“There’s a lot of talk about women’s participation, but it has to be meaningful participation,” said project founder Consuelo Tangara, who is IOM’s Site Management Area Coordinator in Teknaf sub-district, where the committee is based.
According to Tangara, the idea of creating an “informal committee” outside the male-dominated official camp management system, was to provide an effective pathway that women feel comfortable with and that meets their needs, rather than trying to force them into systems established by men for men.
“Often when you ask a woman to take on a role they perceive as being for men, they don’t feel comfortable with it – and in the immediate aftermath of large-scale traumatic events, misjudged attempts to encourage participation can actually cause further distress,” she said.
“That it not true for everyone and can change over time. There’s a lot of work going on to increase women’s participation, representation and access to information in the formal camp-management systems with more women becoming involved. But in the meantime, those of us responsible for providing infrastructure and services still need to know what women’s immediate and wider concerns are, so we don’t put systems in place that ignore these needs and are then difficult to change later.”
Activities in the camps are divided into “sectors” including Health, Protection, Camp Management and Development, and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). Under the new committee structure, each para (sub-section) of the camp will have a trained woman representative responsible for dealing with issues relating to each sector. She will share concerns and complaints with the women’s committee for the entire camp, who can then take them direct to IOM sector heads.
According to Tangara, the system will provide a stronger advocacy and reporting mechanism leading to faster responses from sector managers and will encourage sustainable participation. “When you are representing your own community, you want to make sure something happens. The committee members are also learning the skills of reaching out to sector heads and becoming comfortable with that,” she said.
This can make a huge difference to camp life and women’s lives in particular. “One concern we became very aware of is lack of street lighting around latrines and latrines that didn’t meet women’s needs for privacy or sense of security. Those are issues that are absolutely critical. If women are scared to go to latrines they end up adopting practices that are unsanitary and pose health risks. But it’s also the kind of issue that women might not feel comfortable going to male leaders with, or that would be given priority without women’s voices to push for it,” Tangara noted.
Following a trial period with the Leda committee, IOM hopes to roll out similar committee projects across all the camps for which it is responsible. “The more platforms there are for women to express their needs and opinions, the stronger community participation becomes overall. That then leads to stronger governance and civil society. IOM Bangladesh is completely committed to helping refugees to take their future into their own hands,” said IOM Cox’s Bazar Emergency Coordinator Manuel Pereira.
According to the women involved in Leda, their new committee is already helping them become more confident about participation. “Before [this committee was established] we were very afraid to share our thoughts and feelings, but now we’re going to share them,” Muriom explained.
She and other women on the committee already have a list of immediate priorities. “First of all, we want to earn money. Men work in Cash for Work programmes, but women don’t and now we want to work,” she said.
IOM is on track to have 50 per cent women’s participation in its Cash for Work programmes in the camps by year end, but the committee women also have their own livelihood plans to make soaps and handicrafts at the community centre to sell.
They also intend to raise the issue of gender-based violence and early (child) marriage with the wider community. “Early marriage, is very, very harmful. I’ve already talked to one family about it. At first the family said I had no right to talk to them about it. The boy was 15 and he was getting married. But then they changed their minds,” one of the committee members explained, adding that the training the group had received had helped them feel more assured about raising such issues.
As for tackling possible objections from the men in the community about their new committee, the women said they expect few problems. “No woman is going to do harmful work, and we promise that if anyone faces a problem they will be able to come to us. Maybe some of the newcomers [those who arrived post August 2017] might face some problems, so we have to choose strong women [for the committee] to support them.”
Male Rohingya leaders in the community, a number of whom turned out for the opening of the community centre, have also offered their backing. Abdul Matalob, 68, is a Rohingya leader in the camp and grandfather of committee member Nurul Jahan, 35. He said he was fully supportive of the women’s committee, though he recommended “getting more young women aged 18 to 25 involved, because at that age their minds are most open to new ideas.”
For more information please contact Fiona MacGregor at IOM Cox’s Bazar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel: +88 0 1733 335221.