Still At Risk: Restrictions Endanger Rohingya Women and Girls in Bangladesh

The Rohingya minority in Rakhine state, Myanmar, has undergone a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing marked by widespread sexual violence. As extensively documented by the United Nations and by media and human rights groups, Myanmar’s security forces systematically rounded up and sexually abused Rohingya women and girls. Rohingya women were set on fire, mutilated, gang raped, and forcibly detained and raped in military camps for weeks at a time. Since August 2017, over 700,000 Rohingya have fled these and other state-sanctioned atrocities to neighboring Bangladesh.

Yet despite the acute awareness of the use of sexual violence as a weapon against the Rohingya, the humanitarian community in Bangladesh was—and remains—ill-prepared to prioritize gender-based violence (GBV) as a lifesaving matter in its response. The scale of violence experienced by Rohingya women both before and during their flight from Myanmar required a mass deployment of GBV and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) capacity and services. However, the availability of quality GBV and SRH services remains grossly inadequate even months into the response.

Further, though Rohingya women in Bangladesh are currently safe from the violence in Myanmar, GBV continues in refuge, with hundreds of incidents reported weekly. Funding and programs to support survivors were established, but efforts to take them to scale have led to serious quality concerns. These include concerns over unqualified practitioners, a failure to respect basic GBV programming principles, and limited promulgation of options for different courses of care and treatment (referral pathways). In addition, the international humanitarian response suffers from blurred lines of accountability and oversight. This has further undercut the effectiveness of GBV programming.

Some of the shortcomings in the GBV response are the result of a wider set of challenges emanating from the scale and rapid onset of the emergency, land availability, and coordination difficulties between the Government of Bangladesh and the UN system. But most important, the Government of Bangladesh imposes stringent restrictions on humanitarian actors and refugees that have severely undercut efforts to meet the needs of Rohingya women and girls. A comprehensive, professional, and accountable multisectoral response to GBV is long overdue.

In April 2018, Refugees International (RI) conducted a mission to Bangladesh, to research the GBV response for Rohingya women and girls. RI found that the entire humanitarian system is struggling under tremendous constraints in Bangladesh, and protection and health actors do deliver lifesaving services to survivors in an incredibly challenging environment. This report, however, focuses on key gaps and challenges in GBV programming, as communicated by practitioners deployed to Bangladesh at various stages of the emergency, by local organizations, and by the affected women and girls themselves.

In the analyses and recommendations provided in this report, RI draws in part from the framework of the international initiative to safeguard women and girls in emergencies—the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies—and urges the donors and humanitarian organizations that are Call to Action partners to implement it more effectively and with urgency during this emergency.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the Government of Bangladesh

  • Remove bureaucratic barriers that hinder nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs’) GBV interventions, and establish clear and consistent guidance for NGO registration, project approvals, and visas.

  • Remove barriers to critical assistance by revising criteria for lifesaving programming to include GBV, SRH, capacity building, community engagement, and other essential protection interventions. 

  • Promptly recognize the Rohingya as refugees with accompanying rights—including access to justice, health services, cash assistance and livelihoods, and education, as well as freedom of movement.

To GBV Donors Specifically

  • Ensure that current and potential grantees have the skills, competencies, and organizational commitment required to implement quality programs that do no harm and respect core GBV guidance and principles. Organizations that cannot meet these standards should not receive further funds for GBV specialized programming.

  • Immediately lead a GBV programming review to inform continued GBV funding priorities. Such an exercise should include, but not be limited to:

    • Convening a roundtable with working-level GBV programming staff, exclusively; 

    • Reviewing program commitments and monitoring-and-evaluation reports;

    • Identifying organizations that have demonstrable technical capacity in GBV; and

    • Devising a local capacity-building initiative.

To all International Donors

  • Urge the Government of Bangladesh to remove bureaucratic barriers hindering NGOs’ GBV interventions, and revise its criteria for lifesaving programming.

  • Hold all grantees accountable for adhering to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action and the IASC Gender Handbook in Humanitarian Action.

  • Fully fund the 2018 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, which is currently funded at just 26 percent, including all protection activities, which are only 13 percent funded at present.

  • In future funding cycles, prioritize adolescent girls’ protection, engagement, and empowerment as a matter of urgency.

  • Allocate common budget resources for professional language translation services to ensure a consistent approach to language and community engagement across the response.

To the International Humanitarian Leadership in Bangladesh (Strategic Executive Group)

  • Direct the senior coordinator and the heads of Sub-Office Group in Cox’s Bazar to develop, in collaboration with sector coordinators and government counterparts, an interagency rollout plan for the broad promulgation of all protection-related referral pathways, including those that have already been introduced.

  • Hold the senior coordinator and sector coordinators in Cox’s Bazar accountable for ensuring that their strategies and activity plans comply with the IASC Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action, and the IASC Gender Handbook in Humanitarian Action.

  • Work with officials of the Government of Bangladesh to prioritize trafficking prevention and response in all aid operations.

To all Humanitarian Aid Providers in Bangladesh

  • Ensure that current and future GBV staff have the requisite expertise and competencies to lead their agencies’ GBV portfolios.

  • Incorporate gender analysis into all program design and monitoring-and-evaluation plans.

  • SRH and GBV service providers must increase their cooperation to achieve an integrated approach. Service providers should ensure the availability of SRH services, including obstetric, prenatal, and postnatal care; contraceptive information and services; and safe abortion services.

  • Conduct a self-evaluation of GBV capacity before applying for or accepting funding for any new programs with GBV portfolios.

  • Prioritize adolescent girls’ protection, engagement, and empowerment programming.

BACKGROUND

Sexual violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar has been widespread and systematic. The scale of the sexual violence—and hence the need for specialized services in the Rohingya emergency—are simply enormous. The UN’s special representative to the secretary-general for sexual violence in conflict visited Cox’s Bazar in November 2017 and “heard accounts from almost every woman and girl [with whom she met] of patterns of rape, gang rape, forced nudity and abduction for the purpose of sexual slavery during military campaigns of slaughter, looting and the razing of homes and villages.”

 Snapshot of the Rohingya refugee “mega-camp” in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

Snapshot of the Rohingya refugee “mega-camp” in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

Further, of the estimated total refugee population of 900,000 in Bangladesh, some 600,000 are concentrated in one mega-camp. Almost by definition, this high degree of congestion means that basic humanitarian standards cannot be met. This, coupled with preexisting gender inequalities, presents extraordinary risks. Intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, child marriage, and trafficking are just some of the issues that require urgent programmatic interventions.

The response to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh can be measured against a well-established set of standards and the framework of a multi-stakeholder initiative like the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies. In any emergency, specialized services for GBV survivors—including the clinical management of rape, trauma recovery, and case management—must be provided at once. Also, referral pathways—the continuum of available services (including health, legal, and economic assistance) to which GBV survivors need to be given access—should be established.

In addition, the full range of activities delineated in the Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises’ Minimum Initial Service Package for Reproductive Health in Crisis Situation (MISP) should be introduced immediately. This is the set of actions required to respond to reproductive health needs at the onset of every humanitarian crisis. Comprehensive SRH care should be established as soon as possible. Sensitization work must be undertaken, and all sectors must respect the standards and undertake the GBV prevention and mitigation measures detailed in the 2015 Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s (IASC’s) GBV Guidelines and in the 2017 IASC Gender Handbook.

 Reproductive Health Camp in Cox’s Bazar where Rohingya women seek medical supplies and services.

Reproductive Health Camp in Cox’s Bazar where Rohingya women seek medical supplies and services.

Measuring the response to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh against these standards raises serious concerns. In March 2018—seven months after the onset of the crisis—fewer than half the refugee sites in Bangladesh had access to GBV response services. The number of service points at which an incident could be reported, or where a survivor could seek assistance, were far from adequate. A few months later, in June 2018, the coordinating humanitarian body for GBV in Cox’s Bazar, known as the GBV Sub-Sector, reported that there are comprehensive GBV referral pathways established at 22 refugee sites, and there are 63 safe entry points for GBV case management, including 48 safe spaces for women and girls. The Sub-Sector estimated that an additional 137 GBV entry points are needed to fully cover the population. But even where services exist, there are serious concerns about programming quality and respect for the guiding principles that underpin GBV interventions.