Rohingya refugee camps: Safe Spaces give women a fresh start in life

Preventing and responding to violence against girls and women

Kusali Nellie Kubwalo
Rohingya refugee
UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Kusali
12 August 2021

Patiently, Rubaida (not real name) demonstrates to the woman how to use the sewing machine, slowly taking her through her paces. Although she keeps making mistakes, Rubaida does not lose her temper and calmly repeats the process. She understands that just like her, the woman’s confidence had been shattered and any harsh words would trigger memories better left in the past.

“I met her when her husband had beaten her up badly and threw her out of the house during the lockdown. She had made the simple mistake of reminding her husband that there was no food in the house,” she says.

Rubaida took her to her own home, a small reed shelter that she shares with her family. She comforted her and gave her Psychological First Aid, and referred her to the Safe Space for Women and Girls in the Rohingya refugee camp that Action Aid runs with support from UNICEF.

The spaces are one approach to preventing and responding to violence against girls and women. They offer a safe, confidential and comfortable environment where women can meet and commune with each other away from the presence of men and boys, and without stigma. Here, the survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) can access psychosocial support and case management services. The spaces are situated at accessible locations for all women and girls including GBV survivors and those at risk of violence. It also provides skills like dress making and embroidery to economically empower women.

Access to professionally trained case workers has been especially critical at the peak of COVID-19.  Incomes were depleted or lost, and the frustrations contributed to high levels of gender-based violence.

In the camps and the host community, the movement of women and girls outside their homes has traditionally been limited due to social norms, and this has been further exacerbated with COVID-19. Limited access to services, school closures and economic stress, increased risks of girl child marriage, intimate partner violence and exploitation.

Rubaida had also been identified for support by a community volunteer after she had been beaten by her husband and thrown out of the house, in the rain.

“As only essential services were being allowed in the camps, we were doing community outreach programmes and focusing on door-to-door interventions. One of our volunteers found Rubaida in a bad shape after she had been badly mistreated by her husband,” says Sheinaz Parvin, Programme Manager for gender-based violence in Action Aid.

Sheinaz explains that Rubaida was counselled and given psychosocial support. When the pandemic-related movement restrictions were partially lifted, she started frequenting the Safe Space for Women and Girls where she is now volunteering to help other women in her old shoes.

She has a deep smile that even though hidden by the veil, reaches her eyes and lights up her whole face when asked about her children. Rubaida dreams of a bright future for her children and imagines them to be educated and independent with no care in the world.

Rubaida dreams of a bright future for her children and imagines them to be educated and independent with no care in the world.

“They can choose what they want to become, but they must be educated and empowered with correct information.  That is the only thing that can change their lives,” she says.

Rubaida has had it tough. Back in Myanmar, she got married at the age of 13 and now aged 25, has four children between the ages of 12 and four.

Now a Rohingya refugee living in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazar Camps, Rubaida recalls that until now, she has not had much choice in her welfare most of her life. She got married at an age when she had no clue as to what marriage entailed. She remembers that there were two families jostling for her hand and she chose the 19-year old boy who had previously spoken to her once or twice. Not that she had an option. Had she refused, one of the boys would have abducted her anyway, causing shame to her family.

“I got pregnant almost immediately. My husband was very violent and frequently beat me for minor issues like delaying food or waking up late. I always had bruises all over my body,” she recalls.

Constantly she was verbally abused by her husband’s family who reminded her every now and then that she was useless, just another mouth to feed and a waste of money. Her confidence was shattered and she became withdrawn and isolated.

When they moved to Bangladesh, life was even harder. Her husband had no income for a long time and beat her up frequently. The day she was found by the community volunteer uniquely changed her life for-ever.

“Now my husband respects me, and consults me before making any decision. What I also like the most is that now I get respect from the community as I help a lot of women. I get invited to a lot of weddings and social events.”

From the dress making skills that she has learnt from the centre, Rubaida is able to make just over $100 a month, enough to earn her a seat on the table and more than enough for her to have big dreams for her children.

UNICEF wishes to express sincere gratitude to the people of Korea for their continued support to the Rohingya refugees and the Bangladeshi host communities.