Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Rohingya rape survivors battle with stigma, unwanted pregnancies

Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh- Last year's Eid al-Adha holiday is a memory Fatima Hasan, not her real name, wishes she could block forever. Instead, she is forced to live with the horror and shame every time she thinks of what happened on that occasion.
Fatima, a widow and mother of five girls, had fled from her village of Merula in Myanmar's Rakhine state as a government-sanctioned attack on the minority Rohingya population escalated, in what the United Nations described as "textbook ethnic cleansing".
Fatima's daughters had crossed into Bangladesh before her, as it was the custom for Rohingya women to send their children first with the men making their way to the border. As the violence spiraled into a frenzy, she decided to leave.

The Rohingya: Silent Abuse | Al Jazeera World - YouTube
In August, she reached Daungkhali Char, an island in Myanmar located near Bangaladesh's Teknaf sub-district before her luck ran out. She said two Myanmar soldiers dragged her away to a field, and for the next two days they raped her repeatedly, sometimes to the point where she lost consciousness.

"I don't know how many times they violated my body," Fatima said in a voice barely above a murmur, her lined eyes belying her 30 years.
When the soldiers decided to move on, she crossed the Naf River into Bangladesh, numb to the bone and dazed out of her mind.
"I was unaware of my senses for a while," she said. "I found out five months later I was pregnant."
"I tried to have an abortion by swallowing pills, but that didn't work." She looked down at the baby nestled in the crook of her arm. "I didn't tell anyone he was conceived through rape."
Four-months old Bilal fussed and started wailing. Obliviously, Fatima rubbed his back in circular motions until he fell quiet again.
Fatima Ali and her son Bilal [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Shunned and brokenhearted
Fatima now lives in Balukhali camp with four of her daughters. She spends her days inside her shelter, relying on the kindness of her neighbour, Shamim and his wife, who know her secret and deliver aid provisions to her.
The other refugees living in the same section of the camp are mostly from other villages and don't know her backstory, such as the fact that her husband died five years ago from illness.

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"Many assume that my husband was killed by the Myanmar army while I was pregnant with Bilal," Fatima said. "But those who know me shun me, which causes me so much grief."
Her voice breaks and rises to choke back a sob.
"My eldest daughter is married and lives in another camp, and her husband forbade her from visiting me," she cried, her eyes bright with tears. "I haven't seen her for almost a year."
She delivered Bilal at a hospital clinic run by Doctors Without Borders (known by their French acronym MSF). No questions were asked about how the baby was conceived, and Fatima remained silent, too ashamed to offer the truth.
"After I gave birth, MSF gave me a pair of sandals, a head scarf, and baby food," she said. "I have to visit the clinic once a week to get tablets that help me develop breast milk."
Yet she has not received any kind of psychological help at all, and fearing social stigmatisation, admits that she won't be able to tell the truth about Bilal at counseling centres and women friendly spaces set up in the camp, much less than to her new neighbours. The idea frightens her to the point where she starts crying again.
Abdulmunam, Rohingya community leader [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

The smear of stigma

Rohingya community leader in Fatima's camp, Abdulmunam, is familiar with her story but acknowledges that the reaction to breaking down socially ingrained concepts, and openly speaking about gender-based violence would result in a backlash and be counterintuitive.
"Everyone here should assist and support each other as much as possible, given our helpless situation," he said.
"But our community regards rape survivors as a disgrace so it's easier for me to tell some NGOs and aid agencies about Fatima's case in order to help her out and send her provisions."
Johara Khatun, 50, is known in the neighbouring Kutapalong camp as one of the best midwives, but has not come across survivors of rape that have given birth in the camps.
"Rape is the worst kind of torture for women, especially if it results in conception," she said.
"But they should keep quiet and not talk about what happened to them, otherwise people would regard them as tarnished, and cut off their ties with them. In the case of unmarried girls, no one would look at them or consider them for marriage."
'Rape is the worst kind of torture for women' said Johara Khatun, midwife [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]
Johara does not think abortion is the solution, but concedes that "maybe only" in the early stages of pregnancy.
"It is better to have the baby, and if the women still don't want to take care of it they can give the baby to people who want children," she said.
Tayabur Rahman Chowdhury, the head of UNHCR’s health units in Kutapalong camp, said that the refugee agency has recruited community health volunteers from the refugees themselves in a bid to break down these social attitudes.
"We try to take big initiatives whenever we hear that social stigma has begun to take root against an unmarried girl or mother," he said.
"We confront the community and ask, how is this their fault? What would you do in her position? She was forced, she was raped, and it's not her fault."
Tayabur Rahman Chowdhury [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

'Calculated' use of rape

Aid gencies, who have treated hundreds of Rohingya women, who were subjected to gender-based violence in Rakhine state since August 2017, say that such figures are greatly understated, due to the reluctance and shame that prevent these women from coming forward.
In a report published in March, MSF said it has treated 113 survivors of sexual violence since August 25, aged from nine to 50 years old.
Based on testimonies gathered, the organisation said that Myanmar soldiers deliberately used rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls as part of a widespread attack against the Rohingya population.
In April, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres placed Myanmar's army on a watchlist report of security forces and armed groups "credibly suspected" of using rape and sexual violence in conflict.
"The widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to their strategy, humiliating, terrorising and collectively punishing the Rohingya community and serving as a calculated tool to force them to flee their homelands and prevent their return," Guterres stated.
Women in Kutapalong refugee camp [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Physical evidence of rape impossible

Chowdhury said that a handful of rape survivors have come to his health centre last October.
"Some of them arrived at the centre after they missed their periods, and told me what Myanmar soldiers and Rakhine vigilantes did to them," he said. "Two other women came to me to get abortions."
He explained that it was impossible to get any evidence of rape after the first 72 hours, as abrasions, cuts and bruises usually go away after that time.

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"For unmarried girls, hymens are no marker of whether rape occurred or not, because not all women have hymens," he said.
"This leaves us with the option of asking rape survivors to keep the clothes they were wearing during the incident unwashed, and to not clean their bodies until they reach the health centre so we can run tests."
But that is also not realistic, he said, as the women inevitably wash themselves after days of traveling on foot crossing the border.
For those shouldering the secret of birthing a child conceived from rape, dealing with the trauma and the aftermath is dependent on mainly support from family members.
For Fatima, she has come to love her baby - as have her daughters living with her - and said that she would not give him away.
"I don't even know which one of the soldiers that raped me is the father of Bilal," she said. "But he is my child, and my only son."
 Fatima has come to love her baby and says that she wouldn't give him away  [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
SOURCE: Al Jazeera News

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