Stateless refugee mothers fall through the cracks in Bangladesh

Misha Hussain –  WNN Features

UPDATE: 17 May, 2011

Rohingya mother and child
Twenty-six year old Rohingya mother, Rashida Begum, is seven months pregnant. She and her four children have lived in Katupalong makehift refugee camp for four years. Image: Misha Hussain

(WNN) DHAKA, Bangladesh: Mothering in the Kutupalong makeshift refugee camp in the southwest of Bangladesh is about as tough as it gets. Those who live in the camp experience each day what it means to be undocumented and ‘meaningless.’ Without the right to work, to carry money, or to receive humanitarian aid, ethnic Burmese women and children bear the brunt of the international community’s unwillingness to tackle a 20-year-old issue. Some mothers are as young as the age of 16. Many suffer, along with their children, from acute malnutrition, hunger and starvation. Many have little access to education or healthcare.

Undocumented Burmese Rohingya refugees are in a growing state of crisis in Bangladesh as authorities prevent international aid measures to help them. Relief agencies such as MSF – Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and Physicians for Human Rights are now facing their lowest ebb with cooperation from Bangladesh government authorities as they attempt to bring medical aid and higher food nutrition into Kutupalong camp. Another aid organization, Islamic Relief Worldwide, has recently pulled out due to inability to receive required permits to assist those in need inside camp.

As aid programs and program funding to help the Rohingya are now being discontinued by the Bangladesh government, Burmese refugee mothers are falling through the cracks.

“Bangladesh has increased restrictions on aid agencies working with the refugees,” says a recent Refugees International report. As Médecins Sans Frontières faces one wall after another with on-the-ground outreach inside Bangladesh, Rohingya women suffer from a decreased and critical extinction in the little medical programs left for them.

“Life is difficult, but whose isn’t? You take the rough with the smooth and pray that things will get better.” – Khushida Begum, mother of one at the Kutupalong camp

At the very bottom of Rohingya society are women and girls who live unprotected lives as stateless unrecognized members of Bangladesh society. Deprived of many human rights including the right to work, as well as the rights of citizenship, in both Bangladesh and their original home north of the Myanmar/Burma border, they struggle to keep their lives intact. The original home for the ethnic Rohingya in Burma dates as far back as the 7th Century A.D.

While Rohingyas are not officially recognized in Bangladesh as refugees, legal recognition for them is vital to their survival and their ability to gain, and keep, asylum. Even the ethnic identity of the Rohingyas has been questioned in Myanmar, as well as neighboring Bangladesh.

Life is far from easy. In the Kutupalong makeshift camp, Rohingya women are forced to accept lives that continue to harshly limit them. Today they live in degradation as they receive little to no access to employment education, proper or safe shelter, maternal health services or protection from personal violence.

As Bangladesh closes the door on aid coming into the country, lack of options for makeshift camp Rohingya women to receive maternal health care is now reaching a critical crisis.

“I don’t know what I’m going to call the child, right now I just hope the child is born.” – Jahida Begum, mother of two, nine months pregnant

Marriage rights too have been an issue for many women and girls, but not in Bangladesh. In Myanmar permission for girls over the age of eighteen to marry is not permitted without paying a prohibitively high fee; a fee that most Rohingya families could never pay. Because of this, some families have relocated to Bangladesh to enable their daughters to marry more easily.

But even with permissions, marriage in situations of severe poverty often meet roadblocks. Numerous women are left alone caring for their children as husbands leave the makeshift camp to find work elsewhere for weeks or months at a time.

“(Rohingyas) are the only ethnic group in Burma restricted from marriage, traveling beyond their village or building or maintaining religious structures,” says international advocacy and assistance organization, Refugees International. “In addition, they are subject to frequent forced labor, arbitrary taxation, sexual violence and land confiscations by the NaSaKa (Burma military forces),” adds Refugees International.

When husbands leave for work in neighboring regions, women as heads-of-households are forced to get their family’s food rations, as well as search and find clean potable water along with wood for cooking and heating their home. Dangers for women who often walk hours to gather basic necessities cause an ongoing, and serious, safety dilemma. Cases of rape are not uncommon.

“If I can educate my child, I will have been a good mother.” – Eighteen year old Rohingya mother, Anwara Begum, pregnant with no children

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