When hundreds of thousands of Rohingya flooded into south-east Bangladesh last year, they told of systematic rape and other sexual violence by Myanmar soldiers and militiamen. May will mark nine months since that exodus started. Aid agencies, especially those who work with women and children, have been bracing for the date. Over the next weeks, babies conceived as a result of sexual assaults committed during the crackdown will be born. Save the Children says it is expecting the number of babies who are abandoned by their mothers to increase next month in line with the milestone. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which runs hospitals in the sprawling Cox’s Bazar camps, is preparing to counsel affected mothers. “They may feel they cannot care or are not equipped to care for their new baby,” says Melissa How, a medical coordinator with the doctors’ group. “Many of them are young women under the age of 18. Additionally, how they will be perceived socially due to stigma is an added stress.”
They will not be the first children conceived in this way to be born in the camps. About one year ago, Ayesha Akhtar* missed her period. A few weeks earlier, the Rohingya woman says three Burmese soldiers had burst into her home in a village south of Maungdaw town, threatened to shoot her children, then raped her. Similar raids had been taking place for months across Rakhine state as part of a Myanmar army crackdown beginning in November 2016. Ayesha, a mother of five whose husband died in 2012, says the “dirty act” left her reeling. She tried keeping it from her neighbours, but they quickly guessed. “Everyone knew the soldiers commit rape when they raid villages,” she tells the Guardian inside her tarpaulin shelter on a slope in Balukhali, one of the congested refugee camps that have swollen with new arrivals since last August.
In Myanmar, most Rohingya had little or no access to healthcare, let alone abortion services. Ayesha, 34, says she bought “medicine” from a village doctor that failed to halt the pregnancy. As a widow, she felt a particular stigma against asking other villagers for help. “Seeking help to abort a pregnancy is very difficult for a widow in our society,” she says. “I stopped searching for any way to get rid of the pregnancy, and I left everything to the mercy of Allah.” In August 2017, when she was five months’ pregnant, a new round of military raids began in her area. Like nearly 700,000 other Rohingya she fled across the border to Bangladesh. Inside the heaving refugee camps, she again sought help to terminate the pregnancy. But by then it was too late. Bangladesh law prohibits abortion after the first trimester. Doctors warned her an illegal procedure could endanger her life. “I had other little children at home,” she says. “I chose not to take the risk.” Nobody knows how many women like Ayesha there are in the camps. MSF says it treated 224 victims of sexual violence up to 25 February, but acknowledges there are many more who do not seek help.
In January, so many women were showing up at the organisation’s hospitals bleeding that midwives speculated many were probably trying to abort their pregnancies at home. The UN’s special envoy on sexual violence, Pramila Patten, has concluded the Myanmar army use rape as a weapon of genocide. “[It is] a calculated tool of terror aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group,” she says. Earlier in April, the UN added Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, to a list of armies known to commit sexual violence in armed conflict. On 26 January, Ayesha gave birth to a boy named Fayaz*. He was healthy, despite the traumas his mother had suffered. He has an eager smile, she says. “He is very playful and jolly.” Fayaz’s arrival divided the family, and the community. Two of Ayesha’s daughters told her the infant was not their brother. “They said I should give him to an orphanage,” she says. Zafar Alam, another refugee in the same part of the camp, admitted some in the area looked down on the child. “But many more have stood in support of Ayesha and her son,” he says. “We told them she was a victim.” Her new neighbours have been comforting her. They say she isn’t the only one. “They tell me there are hundreds or thousands of Rohingya women who have been attacked in the same way,” Ayesha says. She has been telling her daughters the same thing. “I told them this pregnancy was forced on me, and the whole world knows that. You have no reason to be embarrassed or ashamed.” The girls are changing their minds, she says. They play with Fayaz more often. “Perhaps they also love him,” she says. Ayesha has never doubted that she does too. “He might have been born because of a cruel act, but I can’t blame him for that,” she says. “He is innocent, just a baby. I love him like my other children. It doesn’t feel different.”
Ko Ko Linn, a Rohingya political activist based in Bangladesh, said he knew of 15 cases of women who were pregnant after being sexually assaulted by Myanmar soldiers during the military campaign that started in August. But he is certain many more are undocumented. Surveys conducted by Human Rights Watch in November estimated two-thirds of the women who had been experienced sexual violence in Myanmar had not reported it to authorities or aid groups in Bangladesh. Linn says children already born in these circumstances, or those who will be in the next weeks, should face no stigma. “They will be given birth by a Rohingya mother who held them for up to 10 months, bearing all sorts of pain and hurt,” he says. “Therefore, they are sons and daughters of Rohingya.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of people in this story.
Credit: Michael Safi and Shaikh Azizur Rahman for The Guardian, 1 May 2018.