Latest Highlight

The Male Disappearing Act

Three generation of Rohingya women try to make ends meet on their own. With no education and no husbands to support them, daily life is an uphill battle. (Photo: Nicole Sganga)


By Nicole Sganga
June 9, 2014

“My husband disappeared 18 days ago.”

Asha speaks indifferently, as though she is predicting that it will rain later today.

A missing spouse is not the only new development in this 20-year old’s life. The other one lays motionless in her arms. Asha carefully cradles a 45-day old baby, rocking it from side to side outside the pharmacy. Aakhima is Asha’s second child, whose tanned skin feels unusually cold and clammy for 97-degree weather.

“She’s been sick for 10 days,” Asha says. She carries with her the free medication that the pharmacist recommended. It is her only hope. “They give me medicine, and I give it to my child. What more can I do?”

Asha is 20 years old. We are the same exact age. Yet to no act or fault of her own, Asha lives in a very different world. I try to give her an empathetic smile, but what do I understand about being a single mother of two, nursing a newborn baby who grows colder with each day?

Asha has no education, no husband to support her, and no shoes on her feet. She tells me she desperately desired to attend school as a kid, but could not even afford to buy a pencil. My hands twitch nervously. I cannot help but reach inside the pocket of my cargo pants where I am currently harboring at least six ballpoint pens, two pencils, and a sharpie.

Just then an elderly woman approaches us from behind, accompanied by a little girl chewing on a mango. It takes me a few seconds to realize that I am looking at three generations of Rohingya women, a family made entirely of females.

The elderly woman, Mustafa Khatu, is Asha’s mother, and Aakhima’s grandmother.

“I am feeling so, so bad,” Mustafa says. She never thought she would see her daughter undergo the same fate she did as a young mom. Nearly two decades ago, a few days after Asha celebrated her first birthday, her father—and Mustafa’s husband—abandoned their home. Asha is Mustafa’s only child. Behind her hardened glare lives a helplessness that is difficult to describe.

Mustafa’s brow furrows. She talks of her husband as though he is dead. “His name was Lalu,” she says. “He never came back.”

In the United States, the life of a single mother raising a child alone, is no walk in the park. Yet for an uneducated Muslim woman living in Western Myanmar, the feat is nearly impossible. With no means of supporting herself, Asha now depends on donations from the World Food Program to keep her family alive.

The baby begins to fuss. Asha shushes her, and resumes rocking her gently from side to side. Newborn Aakhima will never know her father or grandfather. Her dad left her because, in the words of her grandmother, “he was too embarrassed that he could not provide for her.”

Asha, 20, shushes her newborn baby outside a pharmacy in the Rohingya camps. Her husband disappeared nearly three weeks ago. (Photo: Nicole Sganga)

It seems like every day here, I talk to women who suffer from the mysterious case of the disappearing husband. In every retelling, the woman is uneducated and the man is unemployed. And while it is nearly impossible to justify a husband leaving his wife to care for their baby of 3 weeks, people around here talk about abandonment as if it is completely understandable.

“He was ashamed.”

“He couldn’t provide for his children.”

“He used to take out his anger by beating her, so this is better.”

These excuses are agonizing. They exist not only in Myanmar, but in much of the developing world. Even more excruciating is the hope that many woman like Asha resort to—remarriage to a man who can afford to take on another wife.

Yet the long-term solution is not remarriage, or even catching a husband before he leaves town.

One solution to the problem of the male disappearing act is women’s education. Women who are empowered to learn begin to view themselves not as victims of a bad situation, but as the solution to their own problem.

There are a number of obstacles facing women inside the Rohingya Refugee Camps: lack of adequate healthcare, poor sanitation, and for some, malnutrition. Looking at Mustafa and Asha, however, it becomes clear that the biggest barrier to their success is a lack of schooling.

Herein lies the challenge of the century. How do you convince women that their world does not end when a husband leaves? How do you convince girls that “their type of poverty” does not need to run in the family? How do you harness the potential of half of the population?

The generational cycle of poverty recedes when a girl’s first day of school begins.

Write A Comment

Rohingya Exodus