After enduring the brutality of Burmese soldiers, young mothers in refugee camps risk losing what little they have left because of the stigma of rape. Thaslima Begum meets some of them in their shelters near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. A dazed 15-year-old girl sits cross-legged on the earthen floor inside the bamboo hut where only a few months ago she gave birth in secret. After being violently raped by Burmese soldiers last summer, Kulsuma and her family fled to Bangladesh and to the sprawling Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, where she would soon discover that she was pregnant. Kulsuma sought an abortion but was told it was too late. Since aid agencies are barred by law from providing the procedure after three months, all the teenager could do was wait. The fear of stigma was stifling, so she retreated to her shelter and remained hidden for most of her pregnancy. “I stood by the window and watched the other children play,” she says in a small voice. “But my childhood has been taken from me.” After months of isolation, her contractions finally began. For hours, she laboured on the dusty floor, with her mother Nura by her side, until at last, she gave birth to a girl. Kulsuma held her daughter in her arms but knew she could not keep her. “It was for the best,” Nura explains. “It would have been impossible to find her a husband if she had kept the baby of a Burmese soldier.” Nura contacted a nearby clinic, and the next day an aid worker arrived to take the infant away. Neither Nura nor Kulsuma knows what happened to the child, but groups like Unicef and Save the Children have set up an informal foster care system in the camp that identifies families willing to take unwanted children.
It has been more than a year since Burma launched its brutal military crackdown against the Muslim minority, but for Rohingya women who fell pregnant after being raped, to speak the truth means to risk losing everything. As a result, no one knows the exact number of babies born of rape but earlier in the year, the UN security council found workers in the camps recorded helping more than 2,700 survivors of sexual violence. Doctors Without Borders says it saw more than 600 rape victims between August 2017 and September 2018, but with most Rohingya choosing to deliver babies in their shelters instead of maternity clinics, these numbers may be a gross underestimate. Out of desperation, Rohingya women have risked their lives by attempting to terminate pregnancies themselves. Pills are easy to come by in the camps but doctors speak of botched self-abortions with women walking into clinics with severe bleeding while traffickers lurk in the shadows of the camps, promising to help.
Refugee population from Burma
Most people fleeing Burma find asylum in neighbouring Bangladesh. More than a million people fled the country last year. Salma, 21, cradles her newborn in her straw shelter in Kutupalong camp. Wrapped in an old checkered blanket as the winter temperatures fall to about 10C, baby Ismail writhes around in his mother’s arms oblivious to the sorrow that surrounds him. “I love him deeply,” she says quietly. “But most days, I wish I was dead.” Salma, who was raped after her husband was murdered by troops, says she can barely look at her baby without being reminded of her suffering at the hands of Burmese soldiers.
Others have decided to keep their secret between themselves. After being gang-raped for hours, Rehena, 30, eventually fell unconscious. She woke up to the smell of fire and managed to escape after realising her house had been set alight. Though her husband knows the real circumstances of her conception, the couple has kept it hidden from everyone else. “This child is different from my other children,” says Rehena, as she places baby Shohida into a makeshift rice-sack crib that hangs from the ceiling with rope. “I didn’t want to keep her, but there was no other choice.” There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Rohingya women like Rehena in the camps, whose babies act as everyday reminders of the horrors they have endured: unwanted pregnancies that bring with them violent flashbacks of Burma’s ruthless campaign to obliterate an unwanted minority.
But for others, they also bring small hopes. Umme Salma, 25, breastfeeds seven-month-old Somira, who has a fever. The mother of four was alone in her home when the Burmese military started firing outside. Her neighbours sought refuge in her house, but the soldiers were quick to follow. They beat the women with their rifles and forced them to lay alongside one another as they raped them in turn. “My husband knows what happened, but alhamdulillah [praise be to God] he is grateful that I survived.” Although Umme Salma worries about the future, she is determined to give her children, including Somira, a better life. “This baby is mine, and I will take care of her for as long as I’m alive,” she says with a gentle smile. There is fear that a plan for Bangladesh to repatriate the Rohingya to Burma will leave them vulnerable to the same sort of brutality they have already endured. Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur on Burma, told The Times that any repatriation at this point would be reckless. “No one has adequately protected these women; even now, there is no proper safeguarding in place. By returning them without first holding the perpetrators to account, we are simply reinforcing Myanmar’s [Burma’s] brutality.”
Credit: Thaslima Begum for The Times, 10 December 2018.