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Rohingya women call for justice

By Paula Kelly

A group of Rohingya women and men carry young children and belongings as they walk in a line over an earthen dike over a stretch of water.

Photograph by Kevin Frayer, courtesy of Kevin Frayer and Getty Images

Story details

Rohingya activist Yasmin Ullah has a clear and profoundly personal mission. She speaks out for Rohingya women and children who have fled mass atrocities in Myanmar (formerly Burma) for refugee camps in Bangladesh. Yasmin understands what it means to be a stateless refugee. Her own parents fled Myanmar in 1995 when she was just three years old. Now living in Surrey, British Columbia, Yasmin has dreamed of the day she could go back and see her extended family. But her dream is overshadowed by constant concern for their safety from military attacks.

Rohingya activist Yasmin Ullah, February 2019. She works to raise awareness of the needs of Rohingya women and children living in the refugee camps of Bangladesh. Photo: CMHR, Aaron Cohen

Time to speak out

Since 2017, close to one million Rohingya have been forced from their homes in Rakhine State, a region of Myanmar, while the state’s military carries out a genocide that has devastated their families and communities. Left without husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, Rohingya women and children are now the majority in the impoverished refugee camps. The camps lack basic health care, education and sanitation. Food, water and shelter are in short supply.

Faced with such bleak realities, refugee women within the camps are raising their voices, while others like Yasmin speak from outside, determined to gain the world’s attention. Their message is direct and powerful: they want justice for the persecution and killing of their families; safe return to their homeland; and the right to live in peace as citizens the way they once did.

It is high time for Rohingya women to be able to express themselves and tell the world what they have just gone through and tell the world what they want.

Yasmin Ullah

A Rohingya woman and her child at home, Rakhine State, Myanmar, 2017. Rohingya women who still live in their villages avoid public exposure because they lack citizenship status. Photo: Courtesy of Yasmin Ullah

Forced out of public view

The violence against the Rohingya people dates back to a time when ethnic tensions brewed during British India’s rule over Burma (later Myanmar) from 1824 to 1948. Divisive colonial policies inflamed relations between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim Rohingya that worsened over time. In 1982, the military-run government of Burma completely stripped the Rohingya people of their citizenship, leaving them stateless in their own homeland. The impact on Rohingya women was acute. Without identification to show who they were, they began to retreat inside their homes.

In the years that followed, the military perpetrated a series of mass attacks on Rohingya villages.The obvious threat they posed forced Rohingya women to withdraw from view, afraid to go anywhere.

Families would not let their daughters go to school, would not let their daughters see the light of day because it [was] unsafe. It was the military government’s strategic attack on what a society will fear.

Yasmin Ullah

The crackdown begins

The ongoing violence escalated into a genocidal crackdown in August 2017, with targeted assaults on Rohingya males. “They start off by killing the men, kidnapping the men, incarcerating the men, so that they would take away the power to protect themselves,” says Yasmin. Often forced to witness the killings of men and boys, Rohingya women were also subjected to systemic sexual violence designed to ensure they would try to flee.

According to Yasmin, the women feared most for their children: “Some of the women would go all around the villages trying to find their children, to see if their children are still alive….There are a lot of stories about women who found children and then took care of those children, even though they’re not theirs.”

Flight from terror

The women left in massive numbers, carrying their children, holding on to the belongings of relatives now gone, struggling barefoot through jungle and water-logged rice fields. Rohingya women had to find the strength to bring their remaining children and the elderly to relative safety in the refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar in neighbouring Bangladesh. Their route was dogged by soldiers at military ambushes, trying to eradicate more Rohingya, even as they fled their homeland.

Rohingya women and their children struggling desperately to get to the refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November, 2017.

Photograph by Kevin Frayer, courtesy of Kevin Frayer and Getty Images

The terror incited by the genocide rapidly spread to displaced Rohingya living in exile around the world, including Canada. Yasmin recalls what happened when the military crackdown began on August 26, 2017. She received a call from her mother who told her “Our families, our village has now been surrounded.”

I realized for the first time in my life that if I don’t do anything right now, right at this moment, I will lose everything that I ever dreamt of.

Yasmin Ullah

Long-distance support

A Rohingya woman holding several “kyats” in Myanmar currency, donated through fundraising efforts by Yasmin Ullah and other supporters. Photo: Courtesy of Yasmin Ullah

Yasmin and her mother immediately began an informal fundraising campaign to send desperately needed support to families like their own trapped by the violent purge of Rohingya in Rakhine State. Some used the funds to flee to the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Other family members, such as Yasmin’s grandmother, decided to stay in the villages where they were born. After hiding in another village for a week, she was determined to go back to her own home. Many of the Rohingya people who stayed behind in the villages are women and children. Those who received support through Yasmin’s fundraising efforts were beyond grateful.

One of the most heartbreaking things was [Rohingya] people would come up to my family and say ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know that people outside do think of us.’ 

Yasmin Ullah

Life in the camps

As for Rohingya women and children who reached the Bangladesh border in the first few weeks after the crackdown, an unwelcome surprise was waiting. They were turned away by the Bangladeshi border patrol and forced to camp out in the open air along the border. Weeks later, land was set aside by the Bangladesh government and a new chapter began: life in the refugee camps located around Cox’s Bazar, a coastal city on the Bay of Bengal. 

Rohingya women trying to wash their belongings at a refugee camp, Bangladesh, 2017.

Video image: Courtesy of Anwar Arkani

After the camps opened, issues of safety and restriction of movement continued to shape Rohingya women’s existence. Today, human traffickers often roam the camp, looking for vulnerable targets. Walking to latrines can be dangerous and the lack of privacy violates the traditional modesty of Rohingya women and girls. Extreme poverty forces them to live in plastic shelters constructed with bamboo poles. Adequate food and drinking water are chronically lacking.

A Rohingya woman serving food to her son by candlelight inside their shelter, Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, October, 2017.

Photograph by Kevin Frayer, courtesy of Kevin Frayer and Getty Images

Women take charge

More than half the families in the camps are headed by women who lost their husbands and fathers to genocide. The struggle for survival is paramount, yet many have found the strength to take responsibility for their families and communities within the camps. Women now speak up at local meetings, contributing to the dialogue about the way forward for their people. They are elected leaders of their neighbourhood communities in the camps. They talk to Bangladeshi authorities and aid agencies about refugee needs. They call for schools and teachers so their children can learn desperately needed skills.

The power of Rohingya women’s collective voices has also given rise to a group called Shanti Mohila, which means “Peace Women.” It consists of about 400 women survivors living in the camps who joined together in 2017 to empower themselves and one another. They are now sending out a unified message to the international community, demanding justice for the mass violations they and all Rohingya have suffered.

Call for justice

In May 2018, the women of Shanti Mohila approached the International Criminal Court with a request to investigate the genocide and ongoing persecution of their people. Their submission includes testimonies from individual women and 400 signatures that underline a declaration: “We are Shanti Mohila of Rakhine State. We are leaders of our community. We are from Rohingya identity, and we want justice.”

Rohingya children sitting inside an informal learning facility in a refugee camp, Bangladesh, 2017.

Photo: Courtesy of Raïss Tinmaung

Yasmin Ullah’s own actions have taken on more urgency as the relentless stress of life in the camps persists without end. She uses every opportunity to speak out about the genocide and continuing humanitarian crisis faced by Rohingya – spreading the word through friends and colleagues, speaking at conferences and sharing her story with the media. As an advocate for the human rights of her people, she has stood before the Canadian House of Commons and the Senate, and addressed fundraisers held by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

What lies ahead for the Rohingya people is impossible to predict. But in the midst of destitution and loss, Rohingya women cling to hope. They hope the world will take action on the loss of their homeland. They hope that justice will come to those who perpetrated the genocide of their people. And they hope that with access to education and a proper place to call home, their children may one day thrive instead of just survive another day in the camps.

Ask yourself

How can I bring more attention to the Rohingya crisis?

What can I do to help women and girls who are in vulnerable situations?

How can I motivate others to take action on human rights issues?

Rohingya resource guide

In this guide, you will find links to resources related to Rohingya and the ongoing genocide in Myanmar. They include books and e-books, magazine articles, journals, newspapers and more. 

A museum gallery featuring photographs projected onto large screens with seating in the middle of the room.

Photo: CMHR, Aaron Cohen