Even in the midst of overwhelming tragedy, there are often rays of hope to be found. This is true of the plight of the Rohingya ethnic minority that has been largely purged from their homeland in western Myanmar. One such ray of hope is Chekufa and her Rohingya Women’s Empowerment and Advocacy Network.
I met Chekufa and several of her volunteers in the sprawling mega-camp in Bangladesh that has become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar. Chekufa has organized some 400 women across the camps into a network of volunteers working to give Rohingya women a voice in camp management as well as with political leaders discussing the Rohingya crisis on the international stage.
Today, the Women’s Network carries out a variety of activities including basic education for children, English lessons for middle school and high school aged girls, and self-defense training. They also seek to strengthen livelihood opportunities and to raise awareness about the dangers of domestic violence and early marriage. Additionally, the network trains women with the communication skills that will, as Chekufa says, allow “women to raise our voices ourselves.”
“In Myanmar, the government blocked our education,” Chekufa tells me. “We want to take advantage of the opportunity to educate ourselves here… If we have a women’s group like this in Myanmar, we can speak up for ourselves.”
This sentiment reflects a broader desire among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to return to their homeland. But they are also uncertain about when it will be safe for them to do so.
As another woman volunteer describes, “Whenever we hear the term ‘repatriation’, it makes us happy because we want to go back. But, at the same time, when we think about conditions in Myanmar now we feel fear.”
Rohingya remaining in Myanmar continue to face serious human rights abuses and restrictions on their basic rights. To date, there has been little accountability for the horrific atrocities committed against the Rohingya, despite ample evidence. As Chekufa says, “We have mothers and sisters still in Myanmar who are victims who need justice… Above all we need justice.”
Another volunteer, citing international inaction, puts it more starkly, “Why haven’t the European Union, United Nations, and others taken more serious action against the Myanmar government? … Are the crimes committed against us not enough to get the world to act together?”
It is an important question and one that, so far, does not have a satisfactory answer. However, women like Chekufa and those in Rohingya Women’s Empowerment and Advocacy Network are making it harder every day for the world’s leaders to ignore it.
Until it is safe to return, Chekufa and the other Rohingya are making the best of their lives in exile. But here too they face significant challenges. They want to be recognized as refugees, something the Bangladeshi government has been reluctant to do. They seek improved shelters and access to formal education. But they do not feel that their voices are yet being heard.
“Rohingya women are very strong,” says Chekufa, “but we are not getting a chance.” Chekufa and her network of women volunteers are working to change that.