As at 1 August 2018, close to one million Rohingyas have fled from Myanmar to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, seeking refuge from a military campaign described as “ethnic cleansing” by the UN. 52% among this number are women and girls; 55% are under the age of 18. Alongside Action Against Hunger and Save the Children, Oxfam earlier this month released findings resulting from research into the inequalities which have arisen in the response to the refugee crisis. The recommendations are focused on the need for increased assistance and more specific support in order adequately to address the needs of women and girls living in the refugee camps.
Oxfam and other agencies identified that water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in the refugee camps are inadequate and unsafe: more than a third of women surveyed said that they did not feel comfortable or safe when collecting water or using the washing and toilet facilities, many of which are not properly covered and do not have lockable doors. Women must therefore resort to eating and drinking less in order to avoid needing to use the toilet as frequently, which increases susceptibility to infections and other illnesses. It is clear that such facilities are not currently meeting the essential needs of the women and girls living in the refugee camps.
In terms of menstrual hygiene management, washing and toilet facilities are often not segregated and there are no separate spaces for women to wash their sanitary cloths without embarrassment. This means that women are less able to manage their menstrual hygiene safely and with dignity; indeed, 50% of the women and 75% of the adolescent girls surveyed said they did not have what they needed to manage their menstruation. Some would resort to using unhygienic sanitary cloths in order to avoid using the non-segregated facilities.
Poor facilities are also increasing the risk of sexual abuse and harassment. Issues such as the lack of lighting in the camps at night mean that hundreds of incidents of violence against women are reported each week. In addition, domestic violence is considered an acceptable social norm and has increased in the course of the crisis as a result of the challenging environment and lack of livelihood opportunities. There is also insufficient access to information and services for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Oxfam’s Advocacy Manager in Cox’s Bazar, Dorothy Sang, identified that the speed at which the refugee crisis unfolded “meant that many emergency facilities were installed in a rush and women’s specific needs weren’t considered. Women and girls are now paying the price in terms of their wellbeing and safety. This needs to be rectified urgently with substantial sums set aside to support and protect Rohingya women, such as lighting to improve safety, toilets and wash rooms that provide privacy, and extra assistance for the most vulnerable.”
Oxfam is working alongside other agencies and local organisations to ensure its response more effectively serves the needs of women and girls. This will include installing more lighting in the camps and distributing lamps and designing better toilet facilities with lockable doors and screens to ensure privacy for women and girls. It will also involve running women’s groups to consider issues such as safety and child marriage and undertaking community work to address the issue of violence against women.