Knowledge as a tool for empowerment for Rohingya refugee women and girls

Radio Listener Clubs and Information and Feedback Centers empower Rohingya Women and Girls with valuable knowledge.

By Kettie Jean
A Rohingya Refugee child
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujan
22 July 2020

Sofira is a bright and outspoken seventeen-year-old girl blessed with a charismatic presence. She dreams of becoming a teacher one day. A few months ago, she started attending radio listener clubs with girls her age in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. At the club, she learned about a wide range of topics such as child marriage, cyclone preparation, hygiene promotion and how to protect her family from COVID-19 infection.

She says she was really scared when she first heard about the virus because she didn’t have much information about it.

“Earlier, I knew little about the coronavirus. Now, I have more knowledge, and I feel safer because I know what to do and what not to do,” adds Sofira. 

Back in May, when the third flag was hoisted in her camp, Sofira knew exactly what it meant and how to react. She had learned about the cyclone warning system and how to prepare at the radio listener club. One flag means a storm is approaching, a second one indicates a cyclone will hit in 24 hours and the third one is raised approximately 10 hours before the cyclone strikes.

After spotting the third flag, Sofira rushed home and ensured her mother had stocked dry food. She also told her to put their important documents in plastic bags for safety.  After ensuring her six siblings and neighbours were informed and knew to stay inside until the cyclone would pass, she helped her father tie their shelter down.  

The night Cyclone Amphan hit Bangladesh, Sofira and her family sat together in the middle of their makeshift bamboo shelter unable to sleep. When morning came, they were soaked from head to toe.

“At least our home didn’t get destroyed this year,” says the brave girl. Last year, her shelter was demolished by Cyclone Bulbul and her family had to sleep in a communal facility for weeks until they were relocated to new living quarters.

Bangladesh. Rohingya refugee child Sofira
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Kettie

Earlier, I knew little about the coronavirus. Now, I have more knowledge, and I feel safer because I know what to do and what not to do.

Sofira

Sofira has endured more disaster and tragedy someone her age should ever have to face. Only a few years ago, she survived a storm of violence and escaped persecution from the country in which she was born. She was amongst the more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar during a massive exodus in 2017 and settled in overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Life can be unforgiving for adolescent girls living in the refugee camps. But the knowledge Sofira gains every time she goes to the listener club makes her feel empowered. When she teaches people from her community and they listen to her she stands tall. “The girls become more confident after they start coming to the listener clubs,” says Rusmi, a twenty-three-year-old Bangladeshi aid worker who works as an information service provider with UNICEF partner BITA. Rusmi, also frequently visits the radio listener clubs to monitor the activities. The adolescent girls look up to her.

UNICEF currently supports 93 radio listener clubs in the Rohingya refugee camps, serving 930 adolescent girls and 1395 adolescent boys.

The girls become more confident after they start coming to the listener clubs.

Rusmi
Bangladesh. Rohingya refugee child Rusmi
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Kettie

Rohingya women as agents of change in their community

BITA also works with groups of female Rohingya volunteers, Model Mothers, to raise awareness about important topics such as trafficking, child marriage, girls’ education and COVID-19 among other issues. Moreover, Rohingya adolescent girls volunteer to engage their peers with key messages on gender-based violence prevention as well as the referral and reporting mechanisms available in the community.  According to Rusmi, women and girls are key to getting information into the households.

“The female volunteers can go inside the home and speak with women and girls in private about sensitive issues,” adds Rusmi.

Rohingya Refugee model mother
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Kettie

The UNICEF supported Information and Feedback Centre (IFC) where Rusmi works, she is the only female staff member. According to her colleagues, if she isn’t at the centre on a given day, women will rarely step inside to speak with a male staff. The centre is a resource where community members can get information and provide feedback on services. UNICEF supports 14 IFCs in the refugee camps.

 “Being a model mother is important in my community,”

“A man can’t do the work I do and that makes me feel powerful,” says Kushida, a Rohingya mother and volunteer.

“The mother is the change maker, the moral educator in the house. She keeps everyone healthy. If you want to inform the community about something, it must go through the mothers,” adds Rusmi.

Knowledge is power for refugee women and girls

Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, the role of women and girls with community mobilization and awareness messaging has been essential. From teaching children proper handwashing, alerting the community about the risks of malnutrition, to informing fellow women on sensitive issues such as reproductive health, female community mobilizers are critical in delivering lifesaving information and participating in behavior change interventions in all sectors.

“We must continue to invest in the women and girls living in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. They may be vulnerable to a range of issues, but they are not helpless. Equipped with knowledge, they become powerful drivers of change within their community and can forge a better future for themselves and their children,” says Aarunima Bhatnagar, Communication for Development specialist for UNICEF.  

“I have a lot of information that others don’t have and that’s my power. One day, I hope this knowledge gets me to a better place,” concludes Sofira.


UNICEF wishes to express its sincere gratitude to the European Union, the Governments of Japan, Germany (via KFW Development Bank), the United States Agency for International Development and the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (UNCERF) for their generous contributions to Information and Feedback Centers and other Communication for Development programmes.