Pierre Prakash

Rohingya Women and their Silent Suffering

Universally, many women are vulnerable and are subjected to violence and discrimination. The devastating facts reported by the United Nations summarize that one in three women have received beatings and suffering because of physical abuse. Meanwhile, one in five women are susceptible to being victims of rape or attempted rape over the course of her lifetime.

However, these alarming statistics are nothing compared with the human rights’ violations taking place in refugee camps. Women and girls who live in a warzone are 10 times more likely to become victims of violence. This is the nightmare reality that is happening to our Rohingya sisters in the Rakhine state.

Merely as a result of being born into an ethno-religious minority, Rohingya women are stripped of their rights to be protected as citizens of their country. Being stateless, discriminated against and defenseless, they are subject to wide ranging gender-based violence.

Based on an overstated fear that Rohingya’s Muslim population will outgrow most Buddhist communities in Myanmar, government officials have nonchalantly abused their power to authorize policies to control the lives of this minority group. One prime example of the many outrageous policies is marriage restrictions. Exclusive to Rohingya, marriage is not a private topic discussed solely by a man and a woman. Rather, it is a state concern, requiring official permission that frequently takes years to be granted.

Even once legitimate consent to get married is obtained, Rohingya women are under strict control when it comes to bearing a child. In an attempt to control birthrates, they are prohibited from having more than two children. Failure to abide by this legislation will result in their imprisonment for up to 10 years or paying a large fine that many cannot afford. Frightened by the consequence that an unauthorized child will unfairly be prosecuted, these miserable women are given no other choice than enduring unsafe abortions that put their lives at risk. However, if the option of abortion is financially unavailable to them, the only way to survive is to bear the danger of carrying their pregnancy on boats for days, in order to seek refuge in an unfamiliar country.

Meanwhile, single Rohingya women are also prone to being sexually harassed and tormented. On October 19, a resident of U Shey Kya village witnessed 150 soldiers deployed to undertake a “clearance operation” whose mission was to hold captives all men accused of being rebels. They also ransacked houses and took all valuable belongings while shouting at the frightened civilians to leave the country. The act of this unimaginable vandalism did not stop there. Even worse, eight Rohingya women who survived the operation later told the story of soldiers raping and assaulting dozens of women at gunpoint.

Rohingya ethnics are persistently mandated to leave the Rakhine state by the government. Their existence has been marginalized for decades and although they seek protection from military-led ethnic cleansing, they believe it is no longer safe for them to remain anywhere in Myanmar.

Thus, thousands of Rohingya men have become refugees in Malaysia. They work in blue-collar jobs hoping to earn just enough to bring their families out of Myanmar and reach safety. Following their husbands or brothers who have fled their motherland, Rohingya women and girls are desperate to escape and be reunited with their loved ones.

However, heartless smugglers take advantage of these pathetic women by offering them a ticket to freedom in exchange for significant payment. But, many, most of them are teenagers, do not know that they are being conned by these smugglers until it is too late.

It turns out that the demanded ransom is too high a price, and only a few can pay. Many who cannot, later find themselves having no choice but to settle for a coerced marriage. Any man in the destination country agreeing to pay the ransom has the right to marry a Rohingya woman of his choice. Therefore, they agree to marry a stranger because they know exactly what horrifying consequences awaits them if they refuse. They fear being sold into sexual slavery where they will not only be trapped in an abusive relationship but will also endure the sin that is not condoned in their culture.

The struggles withstood by Rohingya women and girls prove that they are second to none as the victims of such an atrocity, especially because the petitions to outcast them from their homeland are state-led. Moreover, although having experienced the same fate as these women, Myanmar’s new elected State Counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, turns a blind eye to the suffering of these women.

They are denied protection from the government. Consequently, these women have been denied the right to even control their bodies, much less their own will. Helping these women requires more than just verbal condemnation. Following decades of silence, we are responsible for lending our voice to them. It is time Rohingya women are protected and given the fundamental human rights they deserve.