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When going to the bathroom takes courage

By Anne Sophie Bonefeld

For Rohingya girls and women who have fled rape and sexual assault in Myanmar, a refugee camp in Bangladesh is meant to be a safe haven. But daily life and the need for basic necessities, like using a toilet, is not always easy.

Lack of safe spaces for sanitation and the vulnerabilities of girls and women are often an overlooked area in humanitarian emergencies. Two Rohingya girls – 13-year-old Somjida and 14-year-old Jesmin - who live in the ever growing Rohingya settlement in Bangladesh have agreed to talk a bit about this sensitive issue in their new reality in the camps situated in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

They both fled to the squalid and congested Balukhali Camp last year as part of the exodus of more than 650,000 Rohingya who sought safe shelter in Bangladesh after a brutal crackdown and intense violence in Myanmar. Jesmin got separated from her parents during the violence and fled with her sister across the border. She has no news about her parents and now lives with a neighbour she knows from her Myanmar village. Somjida lives with her 15-year-old brother. She saw that the Burmese military took both her parents away and she believes that they are dead.

The young girls are both trying to adjust to their new life at the backdrop of what has been called the ‘fastest-growing humanitarian crisis’ in the world. Today, the girls’ everyday life is centered around the flimsy bamboo huts they live in on narrow dusty pathways, helping out with daily chores and attending the learning centre and adolescent club that UNICEF has established to help give children and adolescents a protective environment and a sense of normalcy in the middle of physical and psychological trauma.

Privacy in peril

As this crisis wears on, providing basic services such as safe toilet spaces have not been easy in a severely overcrowded camp. Somjida and Jesmin say there is little sense of privacy when going to the latrine although there is a lock on the door. There are men everywhere, and the latrines closest to the teenage girl’s huts are used by both sexes. Somjida would like the latrines to be separated between men and women, but that has only been realized in some places in the camps. And even when there are clearly marked latrines for the two sexes, men often use the latrines marked for women.

Neither Somjida nor Jesmin complain about the cleanliness of the latrines, even though the stench at the latrine used by Somjida is pretty strong.  Many people have to use the same latrine and cleaning is not always guaranteed. But, what the two girls do want to discuss, is what they do when it is nighttime, and they need to go to the bathroom.  That situation is filled with fear and concern for both of them.

Fear factors

Somjida explains that it makes her feel afraid. It is dark and going outside the hut brings back the feeling of fear and reminds her of what she had lived through in her village back in Myanmar when the military attacked. She talks about seeing girls being raped and shot. Having to walk in the dark to reach the latrine, even though she only has to pass a few huts to get there, feels dangerous – as if the horror comes back to haunt her. She says that she goes anyway and brings a torch light that she has been given by UNICEF.     

For Jesmin, it is the fear of what she calls ‘ghosts’ that lurk at nighttime. She cannot explain what these ghosts are, but the fear is so strong that she will not go to the bathroom after nightfall if she has to do it alone – even though the nearest latrines are right around the corner from her hut.  If there is a friend or a grown-up to accompany her only then she manages. The night at Balukhali Camp is simply too dark, and there are no lights to remove her fears.

Quest for improvement continues

UNICEF is working hard to ensure that girls and women feel safe when they have to go to the bathroom and need to shower. With its partners, that include the Bangladesh army, UNICEF has built more than 17,000 latrines in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. They have been designed to give priority to privacy and security for women and girls. A number of “bathing cubicles” have also been constructed to make sure that girls and women can take care of their personal hygiene in private and enjoy a sense of security.
It is a momentous challenge to ensure that girls like Somjida and Jesmin have access to an adequate set- up for sanitation and personal hygiene in the overcrowded camps with hundreds of thousands of people. But UNICEF and its partners are working hard to create the best possible set-up for these vulnerable young girls. One latrine and one bath cubicle at a time.



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