How The Rohingya Crisis Affects Women: Sexual Abuse, Rape, & Child Marriage

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Barred from voting and denied citizenship, the Rohingya, who have long been oppressed in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, are considered a stateless people. In recent months, hundreds of thousands have fled the country amid ethnic violence. However, Rohingya women are particularly vulnerable as they have little to no rights and are often targeted by the nation's armed security forces in acts of sexual violence. In fact, the Rohingya crisis likely far worse for women who are routinely subjected to abuse, sexual assault, and brutal gender-based violence.

More than 310,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh after Myanmar's security forces launched a "clearance operation" in the northern Rakhine state. This came after an Aug. 25 attack on government forces by Rohingya militants. According to the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in attacks in just the first month of the crisis.

But for Rohingya women, the crisis has brought about a prevalent threat of sexual violence. The United Nations has accused Myanmar security forces of using rape as a "calculated tool of terror." In a report released earlier this month, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary‑General for Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, noted that every woman or girl she'd spoken with during a recent visit to Rohingya refugee in camps in Bangladesh reported that they experienced or witnessed one form of sexual violence or another while in military captivity. These included rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, and forced public nudity. In one case, a woman described being raped again and again for the 45 days she was held captive by Myanmar's armed forces.

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In a report on her trip to the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh for HuffPost, Rachael Heath Ferguson noted that it appeared as if Rohingya men "were targeted for death" while the women were targeted "for torture." For example, multiple refugees Ferguson spoke with reported witnessing women having their eyes cut or shot out by Myanmar security forces. Stories of rape and gang rape were also common.

Indeed, an investigation by the New York Times published Saturday found "a systematic campaign of rape" taking place against Rohingya women in Myanmar. What's more, the Times report also found that fleeing clashes in Rakhine or from Myanmar's security forces didn't necessarily mean Rohingya woman were safe from violence. The highly-pressurized environment of crowded refugee camps combined with conservative social beliefs and longstanding ideas about gender often lead to a rise in incidents of domestic violence against women. According to the Times, the UN recorded 306 incidents of gender-based violence in refugee camps over just one six-day period in October.

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Moreover, the Times also found that sexual abuse and violence by Myanmar security forces had contributed to a recent resurgence of child marriages among the Rohingya, with young teenage girls being married off to older men in the hopes that such unions would protect them. Yet conservative beliefs regarding non-virginal women as "damaged goods" made women raped by Myanmar security forces more vulnerable to entering the sex trade to survive once they'd escaped.

Myanmar's security forces, however, have denied such claims of sexual abuse and violence. According to the Associated Press, Myanmar's army claims an internal military investigation found no evidence that such rapes or assaults had ever happened. What's more, Rakhine's Border Affairs Minister Phone Tint told reporters who inquired about allegations of rape in September to look at the appearances of the women making the claims. "Do you think they are that attractive to be raped?" he reportedly asked. The AP, however, found dozens of women and girls who reported having been raped at the hands of Myanmar's armed forces.

The Rohingya crisis is far from over; the number of deaths and rapes are unfortunately likely to increase. For Rohingya women, the trauma of sexual violence will also have long lasting affects. To help Rohingya women refugees, consider making a donation to BRAC, UNHCR, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, or the UN's International Organization for Migration.