Updated: Feb 1
Image Courtesy: ActionAid USA
C3S Paper No. 0114/2016
Courtesy: Red Elephant Foundation
This article has been published by Red Elephant Foundation (an Initiative for Peace and Gender Equality through Storytelling) to mark the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (August 9).
“In societies where men are truly confident of their own worth, women are not merely tolerated but valued.”
Aung San Suu Kyi is a woman who values the worth of the fairer gender. However, given her political concerns in Myanmar, she remains taciturn on the plight of the Rohingya women. When the US Secretary of State John Kerry called on her in May 2016 and raised the subject of Rohingyas, Aung Saan Syu Kyi evaded the issue by giving a diplomatic answer: “All that we are asking is that people should be aware of the difficulties we are facing and to give us enough space to solve our problems”.
The roots of the Rohingya crisis must be understood before studying the plight of the women of this ethnic group:
The Rohingya were early settlers from Bangladesh in Myanmar, largely in Rakhine (Arakan) province. The British colonizers at the time ensured greater migration of the Rohingya from Bangladesh, to contribute to Myanmar’s economy. They did contribute in a significant way, be it as farmers, soldiers or civil servants. However their status in society took a beating when Myanmar gained independence in 1948 and the government began systematically marginalizing them. The resulting demand by some of the Rohingya political leaders for a separate state did not help to improve the situation. It was worsened when the military junta took power in 1962 and launched an onslaught against the Rohingya. The most significant aspect was the government denying them even their identity. They were not referred to as ‘Rohingya’, but as ‘illegal Bengali migrants’. Fuel was added to the fire when in 1982, a new Citizenship Act was introduced. It required that a citizen can only be he/she belonging to one of the 135 national races whose ancestors lived in Myanmar before 1823. The Rohingya, unable to show documentary proof for this rule, became mired in a Catch-22 situation. They were not recognized as citizens by the government, which led to their being denied political representation, religious freedom, education, employment, free movement and healthcare. They even had to apply for a permit to get married, which involved a long wait. They had no choice but to do unpaid manual labour for the military forces. Violence became a common affair. The large-scale 2012 riots brought international spotlight on the crisis. Many have chosen to leave for Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Philippines, Australia and Saudi Arabia. The Rohingya women are especially subject to dangers of migration, such as trafficking, rape or death during the hazardous journeys.
Trapped in a vicious cycle of statelessness, detention, migration and poverty, these Rohingya ladies are desperate for a lamp of hope. Hope is an ironical word for some lucky ones, who have accompanied their husbands, sons or fathers to a refugee settlement in Kelambakkam, near Chennai in South India. Here they reside in a building granted to them by the local government, in tandem with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). “We are happy here”, say the women to this author in an interview with this author. Surrounding them are the suspended cloths which divide the settlement into small spaces measuring 5’ by 5’, for the 14 families occupying them. Besides, there is only one toilet for the 64 refugees here. Their men work as rag pickers, earning upto Rs. 250 per day. The children hardly go to school, either whiling away the time or joining their fathers or brothers in their occupation.
While they do complain of occasional stress, the women insist they are content. This is not surprising, given that they are far from the crowds of violence back home in Myanmar. There, they knew little of dignity in life. Evicted from their lands with their families they became Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and linger in a matrix of statelessness. The Myanmar government claims that they belong in Bangladesh. Dhaka refuses to recognize this verdict. Instead it struggles to contain the steady stream of asylum seekers trickling in across the porous border, settling those who get through in already over-crowded camps.
One young girl among the Bangladeshi camps is the daughter of 40 year old Salma*. (Names marked in asterisk are changed to protect privacy). Salma is a refugee at the Kelambakkam camp (near Chennai, India). She explains with eyes as wide as saucers that she too once stayed in the same camp as her daughter in Bangladesh. After marrying her off to a Rohingya refugee, she took the difficult journey with her husband and other children of travelling to India via the Northeast, then to Jammu and Kashmir, and finally to South India.
Here, along with the other Rohingya asylum seekers, she was granted a refugee card by UNHCR. This piece of paper is literally a golden ticket for the Rohingya. Without it, they face the risk of being denied refugee benefits by UNHCR, or being sold by trafficking rings.
Human trafficking is a major concern for the Rohingya escaping the turmoil they face in Myanmar. Some men agree to become labourers, and are trafficked. However, as in the case of Robi Alam whose story appeared in the New York Times, they are then held hostage by the traffickers who demand a ransom from their wives back home in Myanmar’s detention camps. These women, like 30 year old Robi Alom’s wife Jano Begum, are forced to choose between saving their husband’s life and keeping their meager earnings for feeding their starving child. Decision-making is demanded as a basic right by women in this day and age. But in this case, the Rohingya women are seen getting into murkier waters by having to choose. Jano Begum told Robi’s kidnappers that she could send no more money. Soon after, she received news of her husband’s death in the jungle. Another pressing choice Rohingya women face is to either give in to sex traffickers or marry off their daughters to ageing men from Malaysia, who are ready to pay a hefty price to smugglers for the brides’ journey. The latter is generally the norm, to save the women and girls from brothels.
The situation resounds of the similar plight of ethnic Kachin women in northern Myanmar, who are often sold as brides to Chinese men or trafficked to brothels.  The high demand for the ‘fair-skinned’ Kachin brides is to offset the imbalance because of China’s one child policy. However there is no demand for the Muslim Rohingya brides in Yunnan province. Besides the Sino-Myanmar border is not as porous as the one between Bangladesh-Myanmar. In addition, China does not welcome Rohingya asylum-seekers, despite public statements for an “Asian solution” to the crisis. Indonesia too turns a blind eye to the ‘boat-people”.
On the other hand, India is silently refraining from turning back Rohingya asylum seekers entering the country. They have the luxury of freedom of movement here. It is obvious as seen in their journeys from Northeast to North to South India.
Having a means to a livelihood, no matter what nature, is another luxury. But these means are restricted to the men folk. When the Rohingya refugees were asked by this author why the women were not working, for instance as domestic help, the reply given was that they will not permit their women to leave home for employment, as it is “unIslamic”. This led to this author querying whether the women there are ready to learn skills such as sewing and dress-making, in order to make a living from home. They seemed eager to develop such talents. However, they point at the empty corridors, where no sewing machine awaits them. Besides the women stand their small daughters. Tiny gold studs glisten from their earlobes. The women, surprisingly, are adorned with a little jewelry. This author wonders if this is how the refugee men ‘value’ their women.
Similar to the picture back home in Myanmar, female Rohingya IDPs or asylum seekers/refugees have no economic rights. The men seem to want to cover this up. For instance, Sultan*, a Kelambakkam Rohingya refugee says with a glint of pride in his eyes of how he once owned acres of land in his Myanmar village. When asked in a second interview whether their women back home owned land, he says, “How could they? When we men ourselves were not permitted to be land-owners.” They also claim to not pay ‘mahar’, the Islamic tradition of payment made by the newly married groom to the bride.
The extremely conservative nature of the poor Rohingya is also reflected in lack of education, not only among girls but also boys. The term ‘learning’, for the Rohingya, largely refers to madrasa schooling, or religious education. Madrasas were banned in Myanmar, and here at Kelambakkam one of the parents’ biggest worry is that there is no channel for Islamic learning for their children. While a Government-run school functions nearby, the principal describes in an interview with this author how the Rohingya children hardly attend classes. They are given tremendous leeway in light of their pitiful state, yet there is no enthusiasm among either child or elder to progress. The excuse given by the Rohingya is that they will not stay here indefinitely, so why should they educate their children in a Tamil-medium school.
Indeed, they still cling to hope of returning to Myanmar, on the condition that they are given statehood and allowed to name themselves as ‘Rohingya’. In the meantime, for Kelambakkam refugees the near future involves scrimping enough to get by and eventually marry off their daughters as soon the girls attend puberty. However, this outlook sees a remarkable exception, in the hues of Ayesha*, a 12 year old Rohingya refugee girl at the Kelambakkam settlement. Her father has done the unthinkable among his brethren, by permitting and encouraging his daughter to continue her studies.
The move has come with a price. Ayesha’s family is being ignored by the other refugees. They show their displeasure by hinting that she ought to be at the settlement and have a groom found for her. Ayesha’s father Khan* brushes their comments aside. Truly, he has long term plans for his children’s future.
Nevertheless, the letdown remains that his community of Rohingya are denied conventional education at all levels back in Myanmar. Madrasa schooling is banned as well. Besides, the lucky few Muslims in Myanmar who are educated, be it the Rohingya or other ethnic groups, are unable to find employment relevant to their qualifications. The Rohingya especially are ostracized to detention camps.
Adding salt to the wound is the whisper among some academic circles that the Rohingya are rejected by other countries because they “have no skills”. While it is true that the Rohingya historically have little interest in education, the blanket statement about lack of skills is a mark of stereotyping. There is evidence to show there are some Rohingya people, even young women and girls, who have defied political prejudices. Wai Wai Nu is a shining example. In fact she has been dubbed the ‘Rohingya Princess’ by the media. Wai Wai was 18 and studying law when she was arrested in 2005; her crime was to be the daughter of Kyaw Min, a Rohingya who was elected as member of parliament in the 1990 elections, the results of which were ignored by Myanmar’s military rulers. After being held as a political prisoner for seven years, she was released with her family when Thein Sein took power as President and introduced political reforms. She now runs a community organization, Women Peace Network Arakan. It is a small ray of light amidst the darkness that pervades the Rohingya landscape. Wai Wai has been recognized by the international community for her efforts to better the situation for Rohingya women. She had even attended a dinner at the White House.
Ayesha, like Wai Wai, has let go of the comfort zone of societal prejudice against education and paved a way for herself. One cannot help thinking that the Rohingya women need to bring about a change in themselves to see a change in their future.
While it is not being denied that they are being subject to harsh circumstances, it is not recommended that they live a complacent life in asylum shelters/refugee camps. The outlook of sheltering young girls and women must be converted into one of true worthiness of the female gender. Their status as care-givers and nurturers of the family should transcend traditional beliefs. When one girl in the family is educated, the entire group benefits. They can learn about their rights, get better access to facilities such as the ID card required to be carried by them back in Myanmar, and be assertive when standing up for their civil liberties. They can be better informed about the need for maintaining personal health and hygiene, an aspect being ignored by Rohingya women at the Kelambakkam camp. According to a government-run clinic nearby, they do not bring their newborns or children for vaccinations. In fact, they do not come for regular check-ups themselves when pregnant. Another pressing problem among the Rohingya is that they desire a large number of children. This is despite their political, economic and social problems. They believe that family planning is against their religion Islam. Indeed, a change is needed among their orthodox views.
One cannot help comparing the Rohingya refugees near Chennai, to the Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu (a South Indian state, of which Chennai is the capital city). They are known for their commitment to their children’s education, even for girls. In fact, the author attended a World Refugee Day event organized by UNHCR at Stella Maris College, Chennai, which some refugees from various countries residing in and near Tamil Nadu attended. It was heartening to observe a young Sri Lankan Tamil refugee speaking of her experiences. She regretted that she had to discontinue her higher secondary school education back home because of the violence. However she has taken it upon herself to ensure her small daughter is not denied access to a full education. Likewise, the Rohingya women will do well by dedicating greater attention to their own and their children’s education.
Nevertheless, change is not a one-way street. There must be action on the Myanmar government’s part to ensure the safety of Rohingya girls and women. The Rohingya women at the Kelambakkam camp are secure in their environment. They fill their evenings with joint prayers, seeking solace for their people. They also attend Friday prayers at a mosque nearby. When asked if they sing to amuse themselves, a look of mock horror is given. They believe that singing is a “sin” and would rather just pray. One cannot help thinking that this was not the case even during Prophet Muhammad’s time when women would sing at special occasions. The Rohingya women may be silent when asked to sing, but even more deafening is the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi. She too must galvanize her people to change their attitude against the Rohingya, instead of letting their actions dictate her policies.
Until then, prayer is not enough. As the Islamic saying goes, “One must tie the camel up, then pray for it to not be stolen.” In other words, an effort must be made for one’s prayer to be answered. The Muslim community in and around Chennai can also catalyze efforts to help the Rohingya by talking to them about the importance of education and healthcare, helping the Rohingya refugees including the women find means to a better livelihood, and their overall well-being. The Government of Tamil Nadu can also expand its goodwill measures to these refugees.
In the meantime, the Rohingya, especially those from rural areas and those against girls’ education must realize that learning will empower their women, and not expose their vulnerability. If they choose to ensure that their daughters regularly attend school when in the refugee camps, a silver lining is not far off.
One cannot help being taken aback when Ayesha’s father Khan says in a low voice in Urdu, “When the iman (faith in God) is good, then all aspects, even education, fall into place.” Indeed, the Rohingya must start ‘tying up their camels’, parallel to the Myanmar government providing the ropes. These are the threads of dignity, citizenship, education and employment. Together, they can weave a beautiful tapestry of harmony and justice in Myanmar.
 Ibid 2
* Names marked in asterisk are changed to protect privacy.
 Nicholas Kristof, “In Myanmar, a Wife’s Wrenching Decision”, New York Times, January 16 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/14/opinion/in-myanmar-a-wifes-wrenching-decision.html?_r=0
 Chris Buckley and Ellen Barry, “Rohingya Women Flee Violence Only to Be Sold Into Marriage”, New York Times, August 2 2015,http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/03/world/asia/rohingya-women-flee-violence-only-to-be-sold-into-marriage.html?smid=fb-share
 Asma Masood, “Myanmar: The Economics of Trafficking”, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, July 1 2013, http://www.ipcs.org/article/peace-and-conflict-database/myanmar-the-economics-of-trafficking-4016.html
 Asma Masood, “From Rice to Rights: Potential for India and China to Resolve the Rohingya crisis”, Mizzima Weekly, Issue 36, Vol. 4, September 3, 2015, https://www.c3sindia.org/terrorismandsecurity/5224
 “Indonesia to ‘turn back Rohingya’ boats”, Al Jazeera, May 12 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/05/150512045951738.html
 Asma Masood, “Myanmar: FDI, Local Economy and the Rohingya Conflict”, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, July 10 2013,http://www.ipcs.org/article/peace-and-conflict-database/myanmar-fdi-local-economy-and-the-rohingya-conflict-4030.html
 “Young Rohingya woman chases dream of peace and justice in Myanmar”, Reuters, September 1 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-foundation-myanmar-rohingya-idUSKBN0GW26E20140901