This blog post is part 2 of 2 posts. Read part 1 here.
Content warning/trigger warning: sexual violence.
Rohingya lawyer and educator Razia Sultana is a strong advocate for the rights of her people, and since 2014, has worked with some of the 900,000 Rohingya refugees now in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. She has been working closely with Rohingya women who are survivors of sexual and gender-based violence and documenting the stories of women and girls who fearlessly fled Myanmar to escape genocide.
This is part 2 of our interview with her, where she shares more about the situation in the refugee camps, current projects that she’s working on, as well as the successes and challenges faced in the process.
Q: What effect has the military coup in Myanmar had on the Rohingya community in the refugee camps?
A: After the Holocaust in Europe, people said the words “never again”. However, even in the 21st century, countless women and girls continue to face sexual violence. As a researcher, I see how this kind of violence attacks society as a whole.
For the Rohingya, the fear and cruelty can’t be understood through words alone. It’s almost broken all the self-confidence of the people and their families. Several agencies have found in evidence of sexual violence against women; 80 percent of the incidents of rape were perpetrated by gangs. In some cases, more than 30 to 40 women and girls were gang-raped in a school or in military detention.
Rape has been a central component of the genocidal campaign waged by Myanmar’s military and security forces against the Rohingya ethnic minority, in which Rohingya Muslim women and girls – and also men and boys – have suffered unspeakable sexual violence.
Kaladan Press has been working to document this state-sponsored sexual violence against the Rohingya and also for other ethnic women’s groups in other parts of Myanmar which has been going on for decades. It’s been 4 years since the clearance operations and the victims still can’t overcome it. Time has only helped to make them a little stronger, but ultimately they hope they will get justice.
The women and girls I work with deserve to go home safely. The demands of the women I work with are very modest: they want to be treated as equal human beings in their homeland. Like all people, they do not want to be confined to IDP camps, to have their houses burned, to live in constant fear that that they or their loved ones will be raped while the masterminds of genocide continue to go unpunished.
As for myself, I’ve been running a psychosocial resilience program since 2018 in a refugee camp and have built up a great team of psychosocial trainers within it. This kind of program will help victims overcome trauma and empower them.
Q. What is the most recent success story you’ve seen come out as a result of your efforts?
My goal is to empower vulnerable women. I haven’t achieved my target yet, but in the camp I’m working in, I’ve been able to cultivate a supportive and positive environment for women, where they can speak up for their rights. The Rohingya community is very conservative and so it’s not easy to educate the girls.
Other community members and I have been raising awareness about women’s education, and from 2017, we have also been referring capable Rohingya girls for admission to the International Asian University of Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh, with full scholarships. I’m glad to see that the girls we supported are now doing advocacy for the education of other women in the community.
Q. Could you share with us about any new projects you are working on?
Now in its 4th phase, the goal of my current project is to strengthen the psychosocial resilience capacity of Rohingya refugee women, and foster a protective environment for them by expanding the social network of the Rohingya community. To support personal psychological stability and resilience, the project seeks to establish an integral protected environment through diverse means; from organizing peer groups and networks of families and neighbors, to securing an independent space for women’s psychological healing and protection as well as empowering Rohingya and Bangladeshi women. We are also conducting activities between the Rohingya and the host community to stop child marriage, trafficking, and sexual violence against women and children.
Psychosocial Support (PSS) Groups, the principal agents of the project, are trained in four qualification courses (Practitioner-Assistant-Master-Trainer) and each course is composed of a Beginner-Intermediate-Advanced-Supervision curriculum. Qualified practitioners are to organise self-help groups in order to practise trained programs in daily life, support the community and to exercise basic skills and knowledge of psychosocial support. In the second qualification (Assistant) course, trainees will receive intermediate training on psychosocial support programs while experiencing the operational work of a Women’s Healing Centre at the same time. In the Master course, trainees will learn how to deal with particular symptoms and to run the Women’s Healing Centre by themselves. In the final qualification course (Trainer), trainees will be able to run branches of a Women’s Healing Centre and to become experts who can train others to be Practitioners and Assistants. The whole process is a ‘Female Psychosocial Support Group Training Model’, through which trained psychosocial experts are expected to multiply across the community. After completing all qualification courses in three to four years, trainees are expected to become psychosocial healing experts in trauma and to contribute positively not only to Rohingya communities but also to other organisations and sectors.
In the first phase of the project in 2018, 60 practitioners were qualified and organised 84 self-help groups among themselves, who later visited approximately 588 women and conducted PSS outreach activities including somatic exercises. The activities created a new network that provided psychosocial support to isolated women through peer support. The Women’s Community Centre, an independent and protected space for women, was established, where women visited freely and received new psychosocial support focused on physical trauma. With these integral activities, the women’s confidence and happiness were enhanced. Based on such outcomes, it’s being planned to open higher-level training sessions to train 40 qualified Assistants and 20 Masters. Moreover, a Women’s Healing Centre is established as part of the plan to ensure more stable and in-depth healing and to encourage qualified Assistants and Masters to practise intermediate psychosocial support skills and to conduct various other activities for women.
The Centre is a place where the Rohingya women as well as the women of the host community can use the services that we provide. It’s operated by the Assistants who were well trained by the trainers. We have 20 Assistants now. There are 6 zones for healing activities and 4 zones for livelihood activities. There is a connection zone, body zone, mind zone, soul zone, integral zone, spiritual zone, kitchen zone, day care zone and gardening zone. We have a training room where we can arrange training sessions on livelihood and host meetings for community leaders. Besides the training room, we also have an office for our staff.
Q. How does the international community support Rohingya women currently, and what more can they do?
Our path is full of challenges, and most of the time work and activities for women face a lot of criticism. Rohingya women do not dare to accept the challenges, so myself and other women at the grassroots take them on to support them, and to introduce women’s rights to them. We face a lot of barriers and illogical blame from our own community.
Women’s leadership is extremely difficult when they are not even allowed to speak or step out of their homes. Women’s rights are never prioritised, inside Myanmar or outside, during conflict or otherwise, inside or outside camps, with or without a pandemic.
Women-led groups like mine are growing with support from bodies like UN Women, Oxfam and other women-led organisations. From my analyses and observations, only some organisations try their best to support ground-level women-led organisations, but the challenge is the continued lack of engagement, investment and support for local or international women’s rights organisations by the vast majority of humanitarian actors. Besides gender-focused organisations, most humanitarian organisations and international fundraising or distribution efforts do not prioritise consulting, coordinating, partnering with and funding local women’s rights organisations.
There are true women-led organisations getting funds, but it’s from selected quotas or special recommendations, which are very limited despite this being a key way to support and be accountable to crisis-affected women and girls. It is essential for the achievement of sustainable development that there is the full participation and partnership of both women and men in both productive and reproductive life.
WITNESS’ new guide, ‘Using Video to Support Justice and Accountability for Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence’ emphasizes the importance of preparing interviewers in best practices for interviewing a survivor.
Frontline documenters should make every effort to understand and ensure that there is indeed a good reason for documenting sexual and gender-based crimes in the first place. Hopefully, it must be of benefit to the survivor as well as their community.
- Tip Sheet: Interviewing Survivors
- Video Playlist: Interviewing Survivors
- SGBV Guide
- Tip Sheet: Interviewing Survivors
- Expert Note: Minimizing Harm
- Part 1 of interview with Razia Sultana
- IWD2022 blog post
Published on 31st March 2022.