Not Forgotten: The Health And Rights Of Rohingya Women And Girls

If you’ve opened a newspaper recently, you have probably seen reports detailing the flight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from their home in Myanmar across the border to Bangladesh. Amid ongoing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State – violence which a top U.N. human rights official called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”— some 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh since Aug. 25, making this refugee crisis “unprecedented in terms of volume and speed,” according to the International Organization for Migration. While the sharp uptick in displacement is only a few months old, this crisis is a culmination of deep-seated divisions and discrimination dating back decades.

As the flow of refugees continues and the international community works to scale up its response to provide and fund life-saving aid, it is critical that the health and rights of Rohingya women and girls are not overlooked. We must support the urgent work of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), the U.N. agency working to meet the sexual and reproductive health and rights needs of women and girls around the world, including in humanitarian situations like the Rohingya refugee crisis. Recent estimates indicate that nearly 70 percent of the new refugees are women and girls, and nearly 60 percent are children. As in any crisis situation, the needs of women and girls are staggering: from basic supplies like menstrual pads to ensure their dignity, to safe pregnancy and childbirth, to protection from widespread gender-based violence, Rohingya women and girls deserve to have access to essential health services that so many of us around the world take for granted.

The Rohingya are “a group caught in the middle,” said Arthur Erken, chief of the Division of Strategic Communications and Partnerships and former representative in Bangladesh at UNFPA, who added that neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh sees the Rohingya as part of their country; they don’t even have citizenship.

“This is a population that is essentially deprived of basic rights,” he added. “[This makes them] a prime target for all kinds of discrimination.”

UNFPA is watching out for these girls and women to provide basic health services and a measure of comfort. At the most basic level, UNFPA has distributed more than 6,000 dignity kits to Rohingya refugee girls and women, including essential hygiene items like toothpaste, soap, and even torches to help them safely navigate to the bathroom at night. It is supporting health centers and mobile clinics, and has set up nine safe spaces in Cox’s Bazar, where refugee women and girls can safely receive services including counseling. Already, 10,000 women have been reached with psychosocial support.

The stakes are even higher for a pregnant refugee. UNFPA has specific – and critical – responses for the many expectant mothers in the midst of this crisis: “Women do not stop getting pregnant or having babies just because an emergency hits,” said Iori Kato, UNFPA’s Acting Representative in Bangladesh. An estimated 13 percent of Rohingya women and girls are pregnant or breastfeeding, and these numbers may rise significantly. At last count, 34 UNFPA midwives are working in Cox’s Bazar and have screened nearly 60,000 women – and have already attended more than 300 deliveries, in addition to antenatal and postnatal care for the mothers.

UNFPA is making progress on addressing the needs of Rohingya women and girls – it has thousands more dignity kits coming, dozens of additional midwives soon to be deployed, and plans for 35 more safe spaces by February. But, in the face of the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in the world, it needs help. One major challenge: a nearly $10 million funding gap.

“A crisis is costly because it’s unexpected, and you need to create additional facilities … bring in additional staff, bring in additional equipment and supplies,” added Erken. “So it’s costly, but it’s needed; otherwise these people will be left on their own.”

This funding gap is exacerbated by the U.S. administration’s decision to cut off funding for all of UNFPA, which had the biggest impact on the agency’s humanitarian response for situations just like this. The gap may seem insurmountable – but we can all play a part. Just $25 can provide a woman in crisis with hygiene essentials for six months, allowing her to maintain her dignity in a humanitarian situation.

“We know what we need to do,” said Erken. “But we need the resources. They are human beings with feelings and desires and dreams. We cannot let them down.”

“There’s only one race, it’s the human race,” he added. “It’s important to stay connected, and to stay part of the support that’s being given to people in need. That can never stop.”

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