Years of horrific atrocities against Rohingya women and girls cannot go unanswered
The Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) Conference, hosted in London by the United Kingdom government this week, marks ten years since its launch in 2012.
For the Rohingya, 2012 was a very difficult year as it saw the beginning of the Rakhine State riots – a series of ethnic conflicts in that paved the way for the wave of violence that eventually led to the 2017 mass displacement of Rohingyas into Bangladesh by the military.
Marginalisation of the Rohingyas in Myanmar (Burma) long predates 2012, but that year was perhaps the first time we were able to truly draw attention to the continued persecution our people have endured over many decades. Some Rohingya have been in Myanmar for centuries, while others arrived more recently.
Regardless of how long we have been in the country, Myanmar authorities consider us undocumented immigrants and do not recognise us as citizens or as an ethnic group. Instead, they see us as a destabilising force and have been intent on ethnically cleansing us and erasing us from the history books by enacting repressive and discriminatory laws, such as the 1982 Citizenship Law.
The Rohingya community and Bangladesh are in great need of increased humanitarian assistance to face ever-growing challenges
Unfortunately, one of the most effective ways to ethnically cleanse an entire group is the use of sexual violence to terrorise women and girls – the Myanmar military is sadly infamous for it, most notably against the Rohingya.
Since the military staged its takeover coup in February 2021, women have emerged as symbols of defiance and leaders of resistance efforts at home and abroad, but this has put a target on their backs. Despite extensive documentation, widespread outcry among the international community and an on-going case at the International Court of Justice, the military has yet to face any consequences for its actions. It continues to employ sexual violence with impunity.
My work focuses on helping women and girls come to terms with the trauma caused by gender-based violence, and particularly sexual violence, since the very beginning of the genocide. I’ve spent years documenting the horrific atrocities committed against Rohingya women and girls by the Myanmar military and calling for accountability for these crimes.
Changing deeply entrenched patriarchal views is difficult but we’re making progress, especially with young people. As well as working with and empowering women, we also need to engage with men to help them understand the value of gender equality. There are many challenges in the camps, and we are seeking to increase literacy training, as well as improve access to sanitary hygiene products and clean products to prevent disease.
What can the UK and other supporters of the Rohingya do to help us? Too often, grassroots organisations struggle to access funding quickly. As a result, women are not able to participate in peacebuilding and we cannot support as many victims. I believe much more can be done to ensure rigid funding structures designed by governments become more flexible to the realities on the ground.
We are very grateful to Bangladesh, the host state, for having protected so many Rohingya for so long. However, the Rohingya community and Bangladesh are in great need of further and increased humanitarian assistance to face the ever-growing challenges.
Sexual violence in any conflict is an early warning sign and must be systematically documented as more violence is likely to follow. We are working to increase international recognition of this important principle and find ways to adopt a victim centered approach that is sensitive to the trauma that women and girls have experienced.
We of course want to be part of creating these solutions for ourselves. We welcome the international community’s assistance but many smaller organisations on the ground are doing their best with scant resources. They need funding, flexible policies and training to ensure a better future for their communities.
Razia Sultana, lawyer and Rohingya human rights activist.
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