This blog post is part 1 of 2 posts. This blogpost is also available in Burmese.

Content warning/trigger warning: sexual violence.

Introduction

Rohingya lawyer, activist, and educator Razia Sultana is a strong advocate for the rights of her people. Since 2014, she 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. 

Razia exposes the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence by the Myanmar junta against the Rohingya in the twin reports, Rape by Command and The Killing Fields of Aletankyew. As a volunteer researcher for Kaladan Press, an independent news service reporting on the crisis in Myanmar and its impact on the Rohingya people, she has bravely documented the stories of those victimized by the surge of violence in Myanmar. 

“I have been told again and again by refugee women that they would rather die than return to Myanmar under the current conditions”.

Born in Myanmar and raised in Bangladesh, Razia is a member of the Free Rohingya Coalition, director of the Women’s Section in the Arakan Rohingya National Organization and founder of Rights for Women Welfare Society, a grassroots organization working in local refugee camps and the first non-profit to be set up by a Rohingya woman in Bangladesh. Razia has spoken before UN Security Council’s Open Debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict.​

Q: How did you start documenting the stories of gender-based violence and oppression against Rohingya women, and what motivates you to keep going?

A: I have been working directly with Rohingya women and girls in the refugee camps in Bangladesh since 2014. When the Burmese military forced almost a million of my fellow Rohingya into becoming refugees in 2017, I found myself on the frontlines of a genocide committed largely through sexual violence and rape. Immediately, I got to work documenting that genocide: speaking with female survivors and hearing their stories.

I do research on trauma, mass rape, and trafficking of Rohingya women and girls. I also work as a human rights activist on behalf of the Rohingya people. My report, ‘Rape by Command’ detailed the rape of 300 Rohingya women and girls and shows clearly the systematic use of rape by Myanmar military as a weapon against the Rohingya. Another report, ‘The Killing Fields of Aletankyew’ exposed the intention of the Myanmar military’s “clearance operations” as ethnic cleansing and genocide. It was the documentation work that first provided me experience in advocating for the rights of Rohingya women, and it inspired me to begin my own organization to start addressing some of their needs in the refugee camps.

Our work with women in the refugee camps started in 2017 by making recommendations about gender programming there. In 2018, partnering with Asian Dignity Initiative, we started a psycho-social support program to give proper counseling to Rohingya women who were facing trauma, particularly to prevent violence against women in Rohingya society. 

“As a researcher, I feel that raising awareness always starts from women, and the most affected person is female”.

Rohingya women don’t want return to Myanmar if the military can still rape and kill with impunity. However, life in the refugee camps is difficult. I have been told again and again by refugee women that they would rather die than return to Myanmar under the current conditions. Even now, Myanmar troops continue to harass and torture Rohingya villagers inside Rakhine State and jail them without charges. Out of over 1,000 Rohingya prisoners in Buthidaung Jail, over 100 are women, suffering inhumane treatment, including rape by police.   

Q: How is video documentation useful in your work and to the Rohingya women? Has it been possible to use the documentation to support legal advocacy? 

A: It has been 4 years since the documentation process started, which is in either in text or video format. Most interviews collected are in text and few victims are filmed due to their security concerns. 

In the beginning, victims were not comfortable with video at all. Now, the situation has changed; victims are giving their testimonies on video. There are a few victims who do not dare to expose their faces as they are well known and it can be very harmful to their lives.

“I believe that both written and video testimonies are workable when they follow proper guidelines. Both can be dangerous or effective and it depends on your intentions”. 

At the end of 2019, some video interviews were recorded by a Spanish filmmaker to shed light on the human rights crimes. I assisted him as a community member and as an activist. It’s not yet available online, but his documentary film, ‘Living Without A Country’, might be able to inform people without any idea about the Rohingya and Myanmar situation. The documentary itself can prove the atrocities and violence against us.

Q: What are the steps you take before, during and after an interview to ensure security for yourself and the women you interview?

A: I never share the subject focus of my interviews. Most of the accounts of rape only surface when I ask them to share about their life and situation inside Myanmar. Before interviews, I committed to hiding their identities so that they would never be questioned by others about what they shared. 

I have faced negative comments and have also been called a selfish woman. As a woman who is doing work with her community, my every step is life-threatening and also full of embarrassment. 

Q: As you are working with many women who have been victims of trauma, what advice would you give with regards to ensuring sensitivity when interviewing them?

A: Don’t ask them to share specific information which is related to her or his dignity. As a researcher, we have to build up trust and ensure that they have nothing to be afraid of with regards to us. If they are willing to share their story, then let them express themselves. Never ask them if it is true or false.

“In my experience, some researchers ask questions as if they are investigating a crime scene, like, “Did they damage your clothes? Did they make any sounds?” and “Are you sure about being raped? Did you hear a sound when the man killed? How long was the knife?”. These types of questions not only re-traumatize victims but also takes away from the strength of what she or he actually wants to share”. 

Q: What are the biggest difficulties you constantly face when documenting? This can be from external sources or from within the community itself.

A: My personal life was the main barrier to my activities. I was involved in community work from my student days as a volunteer social worker. From 2014 onwards, I frequently visited the Cox Bazar camp with Kaladan Press, just as a member of the community helping to interpret. I’ve done advocacy at the international level for Rohingya rights, but that’s only when I get time away from my job. The influx of refugees in 2016 shocked and traumatized me because I saw the victims with my own eyes and heard about her or his horrible situation. I’ve seen the wounds in their bodies and suffering in their eyes, the tears of losing a loved one. 

I had to ask myself, “Do you want to continue, and how can you support these people?” In 2017, I gave up my regular life and devoted myself to my community by being involved in several activities. I used to be a teacher, a lawyer, and a perfect housewife but now I skip most family events. I am aware of the community’s practices and mentality. Being a woman especially, we never count as an essential part of our community.

Q: In relation to the pandemic and the refugee camps, what kind of challenges are you facing now to communicate with Rohingya women?

A: The pandemic has made this community more vulnerable, with some people even blaming women for spreading it by being volunteers when it was in fact the men who were roaming around the camp. I’m glad to know some very courageous women. In the beginning, most of the women who are related to NGO work were forced to stay home.

“It has been shown that women were the first responders who were raising awareness”.

Due to the lockdowns, problems in the camp increased and women were mostly affected by domestic violence as their movement was restricted and the supply of essential items was limited. Moreover, relations between the Cox Bazar host community and the Rohingya continuously increased in tension and they were blaming each other over everything. We local women took the lead, making our best effort to build positive relationships between them and holding awareness sessions to explain the reality and problems faced by both communities, looking at how these could be solved positively. 

Q: Please share with us your personal message to the world for International Women’s Day 2022.

A: The Rohingya are the most persecuted nation and Rohingya women are more persecuted than others. Rights, empowerment, and self-dignity are words beyond their imagination. People like myself are trying to communicate that women are also pillars of society. If they are ignored,  then we can’t move forward. Future generations will become burdened. It should be a societal norm to be concerned about women’s empowerment.

Conclusion

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. The guide also advocates for other forms of video documentation which could strengthen fact-finding monitoring reports and be used in criminal justice processes to bring perpetrators to justice.

Community 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. Ideally, it must be of benefit to the survivor as well as their community.

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Published on 8th March 2022.

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