MORE than 10 months since Myanmar security forces launched a campaign of rape and other brutalities against Rohingya Muslims, babies conceived during those assaults have been born.
For many of the mothers, the births have been tinged with fear – not only because the infants are reminders of the horrors they survived, but because their community often views rape as shameful, and bearing a baby conceived by Buddhists is considered sacrilege.
Some women ended their pregnancies early by taking cheap abortion pills available throughout Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Others agonised over whether to give their babies away. One woman was so worried about her neighbours discovering her pregnancy that she suffered silently through labour in her shelter, stuffing a scarf in her mouth to muffle her screams.
One girl, who would only be identified by the letter A, was raped at the age of 13 by soldiers who had broken into her home in Myanmar, an attack that drove her and her terrified family over the border to Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh’s overcrowded refugee camps, A knew that concealing her pregnancy would be difficult, and hiding a wailing newborn impossible.
She worried that giving birth to the child would leave her so tainted that no man would ever want her as his wife. Her mother took her to a clinic for an abortion, but A was so frightened by the doctor’s description of possible side effects that she thought she would die.
A retreated to her shelter, where she tried to flatten her growing belly by wrapping it in tight layers of scarves. She hid there for months, emerging only to use the latrine a few feet away.
For the women who became pregnant during last year’s wave of attacks in Myanmar, to speak the truth is to risk losing everything.
Because of that, no-one knows how many rape survivors have given birth. But given the scale of the sexual violence – as documented in an investigation by The Associated Press – relief groups had braced for a spike in deliveries and scores of abandoned babies.
By June, though, the birth rate in medical clinics had remained relatively steady, and only a handful of babies have been found left behind. Aid workers suspected that many women had tried to hide their pregnancies, avoiding doctors.
“I’m sure many have also died during the pregnancy or during the delivery,” says Medecins Sans Frontieres midwife Daniela Cassio, a sexual violence specialist.
Throughout the camps, there are women who have grown weary of the silence. Ten such women and girls agreed to interviews with the AP. They consented to be identified only by their first initials, citing fear of retaliation from Myanmar’s military.
H, who had an abortion, was once so ashamed of her pregnancy that she told no-one. In Myanmar, where the Rohingya people have few rights and Rohingya women even less, she had no voice. But here, she said, she feels she can finally speak.
“I don’t want to hide any more,” she said.
A delivered a baby girl, but she decided not to keep the child. Her father hurried to a clinic run by a relief group and asked them to take the baby away. An aid worker soon arrived to retrieve the infant.
She does not know who is caring for her baby now, but groups like Save the Children and Unicef have found Rohingya families willing to take in such infants. The organisations have placed around 10 babies with new families, according to Krissie Hayes, a child protection specialist with Unicef.
Sometimes, A says, an aid worker stops by the shelter to show her photos of her daughter.
“Even though I got this baby from the Buddhists, I love her,” she says. “Because I carried her for nine months.”