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Sunday, January 21, 2018

'I'm struggling to survive'

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Rahima's father never wanted her out of his sight. She and her sister were too young, too pretty, too vulnerable to be trusted among the men of her village in western Myanmar, not to mention the soldiers who roamed the region.
"My father would beat us if we dared to go out by ourselves, or he'd beat our mother for allowing us to go out," said Rahima, a 15-year-old Rohingya Muslim. "He used to say there were bad men everywhere, and it was his duty to protect us."

But there was no protection for any of her family in September, when Myanmar troops burned their village in Rakhine State and sent them running for their lives. Her mother never made it out, her throat sliced by the blade of a Buddhist vigilante. Somewhere amid the chaos of flames, bullets and machetes, Rahima also lost her sister.

Then, as Rahima ran through a forest on the way to neighboring Bangladesh, three uniformed Myanmar soldiers grabbed her. For two nights, they kept her in a jungle clearing and gang-raped her, smoking methamphetamine to sustain the torture, she said.

Rahima asked to be identified only by her first name. Today, she lives alone in Kutupalong, the world's largest refugee settlement, part of a sprawling network of camps in southeastern Bangladesh that has taken in more than 655,000 Rohingya since late August.

The assault is still imprinted on her face: a soldier's bite, each tooth mark indented, on the apple of her cheek.  "I don't know why he bit me," Rahima said, her hand hovering over the scar. "There are many things I don't understand." Denied citizenship by Myanmar's government and targeted by what the United States calls ethnic cleansing, the Rohingya are among the most mistreated people on earth.

And within this traumatized population, women are uniquely vulnerable. All too often, a Rohingya woman is fated to be passed, like chattel, from man to man - father to husband, soldier to sex trafficker - even in the supposed safety of the refugee camp.

The mostly stateless Rohingya have been sequestered and preyed upon by Myanmar's military for years. Human rights groups have long accused the Tatmadaw, as the country's security forces are known, of regular assault of Rohingya girls and women. (The security forces have been accused of that pattern with women of other ethnic minorities as well.)

But the latest campaign of gang rape against the Rohingya has been so brutal and systematic that Pramila Patten, a United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict, deemed it "a calculated tool of terror aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group."

Myanmar's government has denied any instances of sexual assault. Several officials have suggested that Rohingya women are too unattractive to merit attention from Tatmadaw soldiers. As these survivors of sexual violence flood across the border into Bangladesh - the fastest outflow of refugees in a generation - they often arrive bruised and alone. Thousands of Rohingya men were killed on the spot or rounded up by Myanmar's soldiers, and some others are believed to have stayed behind to join the Rohingya insurgent movement.

Doctors without Borders estimated this month that at least 6,700 Rohingya men, women and children met violent deaths in Myanmar from late August to late September. Nearly 70 percent of the victims died of gunshot, the medical aid group said, adding that its mortality figure was almost certainly an underestimation.

With so many men missing, single mothers now head 17 percent of Rohingya households in refugee camps in Bangladesh, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Januwara's husband died in the village of Tula Toli, where hundreds of Rohingya are believed to have been massacred by the Tatmadaw in late August and early September. She escaped to Bangladesh with her 4-year-old daughter and 18-month-old niece, whose parents were also killed.

Her story, like that of others, is based on her personal testimony but was vetted by international agencies and is consistent with accounts from other Rohingya. There is no money to buy milk powder or other essentials, and the fact that the children are girls is "a burden," said Ms. Januwara, who uses only one name.

"If they were boys, I could send them out to work," she said. "But girls, all they can do is become servants when they reach 10 years old. Then they will only get enough money to feed themselves, not me." Rahima, the girl scarred by a soldier's bite, has no one at all. Nobody else from her family made it to Bangladesh; her father, who had vowed to protect her at all costs, died of hepatitis before the soldiers' attack came.

Although she is receiving some support from international aid groups like Save the Children, she fetches water and firewood on her own and jostles for handouts of rice and cooking oil. "I know my father loved me very much, but because he was so restrictive I don't know how to do many normal things," Rahima said. "I'm struggling to survive."

With such a systematic campaign of rape in Myanmar, women and girls are arriving in Bangladesh pregnant from the attacks. Certain clinics report that they have quietly performed abortions, particularly for girls. But some clinics require consent from adult relatives before performing any procedures, and girls are often too embarrassed or ignorant to ask for help.

For Rohingya women, who rarely left their rural homes because of religious traditions, the density of the refugee camps can be disorienting. "In certain parts of the camps, you have 90,000 people living in one square kilometer, which means a complete lack of physical access to privacy," said Mohammed Abu Asaker, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. "We've heard of women who are avoiding eating because they feel they don't have proper access to toilets. At the same time, women feel vulnerable about going alone to a forest to collect firewood, especially if they are dealing with the trauma of sexual violence."

Even those women who left Myanmar with their families intact are not guaranteed security. Domestic abuse is rife among the Rohingya, say experts working in the camps - a product of both conservative customs and a society scarred by decades of state-sponsored violence and more recent displacement.

Over one six-day period in October, United Nations staff recorded 306 incidents of gender-based violence in the camps. Of those attacks, 96 percent required a referral to emergency medical services, officials said. "In any refugee setting, we tend to see a rise in domestic violence because this is a pressured environment," said Fiona MacGregor, a public information officer in Cox's Bazar for the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency.

Rohingya men can be forthright about their impulses. "Of course I beat my wife," said Sadrul Ameen, who arrived in a Bangladeshi refugee camp three months ago with his pregnant wife and child. Their other two children, he says, were killed in Myanmar, the 7-year-old stabbed in a rice paddy as the family fled.

"I beat my wife to keep her on track," Mr. Ameen added. "I beat her if she does not listen to me. There are many reasons to beat her." Many Rohingya girls are forced to marry in their early teens, arranged marriages that tether them to much older men. While such child unions were historically common, their recent resurgence is partly a response to decades of persecution by Myanmar's military.

 "Child marriage is a strategy adopted by the Rohingya community to prevent women from being raped by the Myanmar Army," said Lailufar Yasmin, a professor at the University of Dhaka who has studied Rohingya gender issues. "The community strategizes that if women are married in puberty and became pregnant immediately, they will be not be targeted by the army."

Professor Yasmin said that the high fertility rate among the Rohingya, which was estimated at 3.8 children per woman in 2012, was another survival mechanism. "The fear of going extinct makes the Rohingya community want women to get married at an early age and have as many children as possible," she said, acknowledging the role scant education and widespread poverty also play in driving large family sizes. "This is a highly patriarchal society, and they see only one role for women, which is the biological role, in which their value lies in producing the next generation."

Pregnancy and early marriage, however, were no defense against the Tatmadaw's recent campaign. And once victims of sexual violence reach the camps, they are particularly susceptible to the sex trade because they are seen by their families as damaged goods.

Another Rohingya woman, Rahima Khatun grew up in a refugee camp, part of an earlier wave of Rohingya who escaped to Bangladesh. Her story is as bleak as it is common. She married when she was 12. Her husband, far older than she, beat her and raped her, she said.

A son was born, but when he was 2 months old, Ms. Khatun's husband left her for another wife - and another dowry, which funded his emigration to Malaysia. Never once did he send her money, she said. To survive as a single mother, Ms. Khatun, now 21, works as a prostitute. Her customers aren't violent, for which she is grateful, she said, but they also refuse to use condoms. In a good day, she can earn $25, far more than her previous jobs sorting fish and grinding spices.

"Everyone has their self-respect, and no one will sell their body willingly," she said, as her 9-year-old boy sidled up and wrested her cellphone for a game of Candy Crush. "I'm doing all this for my son," Ms. Khatun said. "I am lucky because he is not a girl."

The writer is a journalist for TIME Magazine.

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