At a Rohingya refugee camp in the town of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 27-year-old Tahera Begum goes door-to-door to talk with her fellow refugees about basic necessities.
“We need more sanitary pads and better lighting by the toilets at night,” one tells her. Another says her family needs new clothes because most of those they had were torn up by rats.
Those might appear to be relatively minor matters, but taking care of seemingly simple problems is often not so easy in a refugee camp where many families have no income and depend entirely on handouts.
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Advocating for camp residents
Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State for neighboring Bangladesh because of a military crackdown. United Nations investigators say the operation was conducted with “genocidal intent.” Myanmar denies the accusations and says its security forces ran a legitimate counterterrorism campaign after attacks by Rohingya militants.
Before the recent influx of refugees into Cox’s Bazar, there were already more than 200,000 Rohingya whose families fled previous bouts of violence. The refugees now live in overcrowded camps in shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulin. The toilets are shared by many families and can become filthy. Sometimes clean water is scarce in sections of the camps.
Begum is on a camp committee that advocates for the dwellers in meetings with the United Nations refugee agency, or UNHCR. The concerns raised in the committee meetings are relayed to the Bangladeshi government as well as non-government organizations operating in the camps.
Committees provide representation
The UNHCR says it created the committees to give the refugees a place to voice their concerns. While the refugees elect the members, the committees are structured to have an equal number of men and women.
“The elected block and camp committees were piloted with equal representation for men and women refugees to ensure that the perspectives of women refugees are heard and considered in all aspects of the humanitarian programs within the camps,” said UNHCR’s Adam Nord in an emailed statement.
So far the committees exist in only four of the 34 refugee camps, but UNHCR says it hopes to phase them in across all of the remaining camps within the next 12 months.
“I wanted to become a committee member because females are needed on it,” Begum said. “There are some issues that women have that they would not be comfortable talking about to a man.”
Day-to-day needs, concerns
At a recent meeting, Begum and other committee members discussed the need for more mosquito nets, fans, pots and pans as well as sanitary pads for women. Members say at some meetings, they also talk about safety concerns.
These committees do not have the authority to pass rules for the camps. Those decisions are made by the Bangladeshi government, but the UNHCR says the committees help the refugee agency, government as well as non-government organizations operating in the camps understand some of the challenges the refugees face on a day-to-day basis.
“We hear what the other refugees are saying and we pass it on,” said Begum. Conversations with refugees make it clear that women refugees tend to share their concerns with female committee members and the men tend to share their issues with the male committee members.
The Rohingya Muslim community remains very patriarchal, with women in many families expected to stay at home to take care of the children and do chores. Workers for several non-government organizations operating in the camps told VOA some refugees resist any change to these norms.
It remains unclear how much of a difference having women on the committees will make toward chipping away at patriarchal patterns.
Ayesha Khatun, a 21-year-old camp committee member, sees herself not only as someone who can help her fellow refugees, but as a role model for young women and girls.
“I can help my fellow refugees and impact how others see ways that they can help, too,” she said.
As Ayesha Khatun walked around her camp on a recent afternoon, several women approached her to talk about the need for more lights as well as more mats for people to sleep on.
“I think she can help us get our requests out,” says Shahana Akter, a mother with three children. “She also helps us understand decisions camp officials make that will impact us.”