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Bonded by Crisis, Adversity and Hope: The Rohingya influx, three years on

25 August 2020

Minara, dressed fully in black, cradles her newborn in her arms. She patiently waits for her turn at the maternal and child health unit in the Ukhiya sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The UNFPA-supported health facility ensures that Minara and other new mothers get quality healthcare for their babies and themselves , before, during, and after delivery. 

Shy at first, Minara later shares that this baby is her fourth child.

“I had three children before this. All of them were born at my home in Rakhine State in Myanmar”, she says. 

Minara is one of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, who fled their homes amid horrific violence in Rakhine to Bangladesh, three years ago. The latest arrivals  joined thousands of other Rohingya who had made the same perilous journey in the wake of previous crackdowns on the community in  Myanmar. 

Three years since the massive Rohingya influx began on 25 August 2017, today there are over 1 million Rohingya in need of humanitarian assistance living in Bangladesh, of whom almost one-third are women and girls of reproductive age.  

Dense population and dire needs

The majority of Rohingya live in, and continue to live in, sprawling, overcrowded camps in what is the largest refugee settlement in the world. With the compounding impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring the well-being of the Rohingya people and their  host communities in Cox’s Bazar District continues to be a challenge. Yet, with the generous support of  the Government of Bangladesh and collective effort by the humanitarian partners, lifesaving services continue to be provided to the Rohingya and host communities, while strict precautionary measures are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

For the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, the key focus remains meeting unmet needs for family planning and ensuring safe pregnancy and childbirth, for women such as Minara; as well as responding to and preventing gender-based violence including the provision of psychosocial support, along with  supporting young persons in acquiring life skills through modules that emphasise the importance of gender equality, inclusion and tolerance. This knowledge  includes the role that boys and men can and should play in empowering girls and women all the more in what remains a conservative community.  

Relief for mothers and their newborns

“I am happy here because I get free care for my baby – before and after delivery,” says Minara, as she looks around with relief and gratitude at the health facility, funded through generous donations for UNFPA’s lifesaving programmes from Australia, Canada, Sweden, UK, the European Union (ECHO), Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. “I got to know about this health facility through the  door-to-door community health workers who come to inform us about the activities that they offer. I feel blessed because they take good care of us”

Minara initially started going to the health facility to understand the different options of modern family planning methods. 

“I have been here for three years, and I have used different types of contraceptive methods since then,” she says.  “I have had injections once or twice, that lasted three months each, and then, the long one (editor's note: long-acting reversible contraception method) for one year. Then I took pills for eight months. I like that I have three to four options to choose from”.

Cross-cultural sisterhood

A tall lady dressed in blue and pink, with a mask and medical cap, comes in to greet Minara. She is Rotna, Minara's midwife, who accompanied her through her nine-month journey of pregnancy and delivery.

Smiling and full of energy, Rotna says she was deployed to the Ukhiya health facility two years ago.

“I met Minara because she asked about family planning methods. Later, she got pregnant because she wanted to stop taking the pills. Now, she is doing well after delivery, and she’s here today for her newborn’s check-up”, says Rotna.

As a midwife, Rotna says she thinks of all the mothers and women she serves as members of a bigger, wider family. “It is a big sisterhood community here, and I have learned so much on the job”

She explains that she receives continuous training from UNFPA and other partners, to be able to provide quality care for mothers and their newborns.  What makes her proud is that now she can manage ante-natal care, deliveries, post-natal care and counselling for family planning methods, all by herself. “I did not know that I could do it. Thanks to this job, I am using my skills to the best of my ability to serve people who are most in need”.

Rotna explains how the sisterhood has grown stronger between her and Minara over the years. “At the beginning it was hard because of the language barrier: I speak Bangla, and Minara speaks the Rohingya language. But step by step, visit by visit, we managed to understand one another; me learning some Rohingya words, and Minara learning some Bangla words. Also, body language helped a lot.” 

Despite the ability to access sexual and reproductive health information and services, the long-term socioeconomic prospects for Rohingya people in the camps remain uncertain. 

Rotna empathizes, and says, “For Rohingya women, I hope that the environment gets peaceful and that they can go back home soon and continue their lives. But while here, they are respected, we take care of them and they feel safe. As for me, I did not ever imagine I could manage all this by myself! This sense of independence fulfils me.”

Hoping for a better future

While Rotna gains confidence and training in providing midwifery services to women in the camps and Minara is empowered through the choices available to her in shaping her family, many more women are empowered through the women-led community centres, a joint collaboration between UNFPA and WFP. The centres strengthen existing skills of women and provide them with the opportunity to attend various new courses, ranging from nutrition and breastfeeding, to  gender-based violence response and family planning services, to designing and tailoring clothes. 

While many women who have been part of the women-led community centres are now skilled tailors with sewing machines, three years on the supply of their services are high, but demand is low.  Women desperately look for new ways to put their skills into practice to ensure the health and wellbeing of their families.

Rokeya, a Rohingya woman, says that she had a good life in Myanmar despite the challenged environment they faced. Her husband used to cultivate the land and do farming, and she used to cook in their house and take care of their two children. However, during the crackdown  her husband was killed. She was devastated and says she had no choice but to flee with her children and parents to Bangladesh. 

“Since I came here, I have started collecting wood from the forest to make money. But it was not enough. I started receiving food rations through humanitarian assistance. Now, I am a skilled tailor, but I am still looking for a stable job.” 

Understanding these challenges and frustrations in employability, UNFPA also equips adolescent girls and boys with the knowledge and skills to make them more aware about their own mind and body, as well as their community at large. These life skills help boys and girls to transition into adulthood with dignity and respect, to be better prepared to face challenges in their daily lives. 

However, for thousands of Rohingya youth, their future depends on better opportunities in a safer and more conducive environment.  

Rokeya too reflects on this. She says “A happy life for me is getting a job so that I can support my family, and educate my children so that they can have a better future.”

The thought of a better future makes Rokeya smile. But then, she ponders, “When?” 

Today, as we mark the third anniversary of the major influx of Rohingya people to Bangladesh, there is more at stake for their lives and livelihoods than ever before. The Inter-Sector Coordination Group, the United Nations umbrella under which UNFPA and partner agencies individually and collectively carry out their humanitarian response, works with government partners to help Rohingya people feel protected and safe where they are right now, especially with the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and monsoon floods. 

We do not know what lies ahead for Minara, Rokeya and hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya women, young people, and their families. There are many questions and, as yet, very few answers. But, as they say, planting a seed today is to believe in tomorrow. 

No matter how daunting the current realities, UNFPA stands ready to equip the Rohingya people - and the generous host communities of Bangladesh - as best as we can, to tackle ongoing challenges and harness opportunities towards a better, brighter, and hopeful, future. 

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UNFPA is the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, operating in more than 150 countries including Bangladesh. We seek to achieve three overarching transformative results: Zero preventable maternal deaths, zero unmet need for family planning, and zero gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls. 

Of the over 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, almost 900,000 currently reside in 34 formally established camps within Cox's Bazar District. As of August 2020, 23 Women Friendly Spaces, 22 health facilities, 10 Women-Led Community Centres, 144 midwives and 594 community health workers are providing crucial, lifesaving services for women, girls and young persons. 

UNFPA is truly grateful for the support from all of our donors that makes our crucial, life-saving work possible.  If you would like to support our efforts for Rohingya refugees or more widely globally, please consider making a donation at www.unfpa.org/Rohingya or www.unfpa.org/donate

To read the latest report on the quarterly April-May-June 2020 achievements of UNFPA's response in Cox's Bazar, click here