As thousands of Rohingya continue to flee Myanmar in the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world, the focus of aid groups is shifting to the conditions facing refugees in the crowded camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The struggle to fully provide for the needs of the estimated 830,000 refugees there highlights not only the scale of the crisis, but the particular susceptibility of women and children.
The Rohingya are often referred to as the most persecuted minority group in the world. Decades of harsh discrimination has left them more vulnerable than the average refugee population. The speed of the flight from Myanmar is also hamstringing aid agencies who were completely unprepared to provide for hundreds of thousands of people on such short notice.
A majority of those who have fled – roughly 70 percent – are women and children. An estimated 87,000 refugees are pregnant or nursing women with specific needs above and beyond the basic care often provided in the camps. Likewise, the high rate of gender based violence while fleeing Myanmar means that thousands of women are in need of psycho-social support, an often under-provided service even in more ideal circumstances.
Providing these needs falls largely on the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). Since the most recent surge of refugee arrivals started in August, UNFPA has successfully provided services to 10,000 gender based violence survivors and handed out 6,000 “dignity kits” to adolescent and adult women. They are also training local women to help as midwives and social support networks. However, for every woman reached, there are far more who still remain without the basic services they need.
What the conditions at Cox’s Bazar demonstrates is the real consequences of the US policy known as the “global gag rule.” and its decision to stop providing funding for the UNFPA. Prior to 2017, the US was the top donor to UNFPA, both at the international and country level. However, once President Trump reinstated the global gag rule, the administration also decreed that no US funds could be allocated to the organization. With UNFPA being the chief provider of services for women and girls in Cox’s Bazar, the lack of US participation has created a substantial funding gap and limits the ability of UNFPA to respond to the needs of the women and girls who fall under their mandate.
“It’s important to realize the role the US played on this issue in terms of funding, as well as in terms of advocacy, political voice and visibility on this issues,” says UNFPA’s chief humanitarian response officer Ugochi Daniels. “That no longer exists under the current administration and current climate…this means women and girls are not getting the services they require.”
The US has traditionally been one of the foremost advocates for addressing the specific needs of women and girls in complex humanitarian crises. Through a State Department program called Safe From the Start, the US led efforts to incorporate gender based violence protections from the beginning of aid efforts. With the global gag rule in effect, women and girls not only have less access to services in humanitarian settings, but also have lost a powerful voice of advocacy on their behalf. As UNFPA’s chief humanitarian response officer Ugochi Daniels notes, the cost of the policy is “measured in the lives of women and girls in these horrible situations.”
For some women, that cost may be quite high. Thousands of Rohingya continue to cross the border daily, adding to the already overcrowded camps. There is growing concern that the crowded conditions and expected prolonged stay in the camps will lead to sexual violence spreading to the Bangladesh side of the border.
There are also concerns that Rohingya women are easy targets for exploitation and sex trafficking. The desperate situation many Rohingya refugees find themselves in means they are easily lured with the promise of jobs only to be forced into prostitution. The expected prolonged stay of refugees in Bangladesh along with limited economic options means this situation is likely to get worse unless the aid community actively intervenes.
None of these circumstances will change soon. The work UNFPA is doing is heroic, but it is not enough. More is needed at Cox’s Bazar and for the Rohingya in general, especially for those who are most at risk of further harm.