Rohingya and Bangladeshi girls bond in UNICEF Safe Spaces
It is much more than just a structure. It is a place where women and girls from different communities find peace and make friendships
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The striking bamboo structure sits in a vast field, which is part of a Rohingya refugee camp in Teknaf in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. It is a UNICEF Safe Space for women and girls.
Inaugurated in October 2019, the Safe Space was originally intended to offer services to Rohingya women and girls who fled violence in Myanmar in 2017. However, upon request from the host community, the centre now welcomes Bangladeshi women and girls as well.
“While we were surveying Rohingya people to collect opinions on how to build a centre they could enjoy, women and girls from the Bangladeshi community who lived close by showed a lot of interest,” says Rivzi, one of the architects from UNICEF’s partner BRAC that designed the Safe Space.
Camaraderie between communities
“I saw it being built and I really wanted to go there too,” says 16-year-old Shajeda, a Bangladeshi girl who lives near the centre.
The Safe Space also facilitates peaceful interaction between women and girls from both the communities.
Since coming to the centre, Shajeda developed a friendship with Fatima, a 16-year-old Rohingya girl who takes tailoring classes with her.
“After finishing the course, I will be able to mend my family’s clothes myself and we will be able to save money,” says Shajeda.
“I dream of having a tailoring business and of being independent,” highlights Fatima pensively.
In both Rohingya and Bangladeshi culture, there are many restrictions for women and girls, and those similarities are what brought Fatima and Shajeda closer to each other.
“Neither of us can really leave our homes and go outside” says Fatima.
Combining service and fun
The Safe Space is the only alternative to staying at home for Fatima. For Rohingya teenage girls like her, there are not many options because the learning centres available only offer opportunities below her school level. But soon, Shajeda will also stop attending class because her parents cannot afford her education anymore. This is a common issue faced by many other Bangladeshi adolescents in Cox’s Bazar district.
When asked about the most special thing about the Safe Space, both girls chimed in unison: “the courtyard!”, “because we can play”.
When planning for the new centre, the team responsible for building the structure visited multiple Safe Spaces in the camps to find out what Rohingya women and girls liked about the centres and what can be improved.
“We asked the women and girls what they wanted, and they said they wished to have a courtyard inside the centre,” says Saad, another architect who worked on the centre’s design.
However, for the women and girls who visit the Safe Space, it is more than a physical structure. It is also a sanctuary where they find peace, connect with one another and learn new skills. The centre offers a wide range of services such as psychosocial support, life skills and menstrual hygiene management kits, also known as dignity kits. The centre also has a bathing space and washing area.
In the refugee camp, Rohingya women and girls often feel unsafe using shared latrines. They also feel embarrassed due to the lack of privacy in the refugee camps and sometimes face harassment while queueing up to use latrines. The sanitation facilities at the Safe Space reduces their stress and supports their sense of dignity while also serving their Bangladeshi counterparts.
Creating equal earning opportunities
Another positive aspect of the centre is the number of Bangladeshi women employed and female volunteers from the Rohingya community who run activities and operate the centre.
“I am proud of working here. I like what I do, and I like helping other women like me,” says Shumi, a Bangladeshi woman from the Bhola district of the Barisal division, who manages the Safe Space and uses her earnings to support her family.
The integration of Rohingya and Bangladeshi women and girls was unexpected but very much welcome at the centre. At a time when tensions have increased between refugees and the host community, women and girls can play a very important role in peacebuilding and social cohesion.
This centre serves as a model where friendships and strong bonds are forged.
The Safe Space is jointly funded by the Government of Canada, the Government of Korea, the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID) and the Government of Germany through the Development Bank of KfW.
Disclaimer: Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.