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Rohingya women are in desperate need of protection and recognition

Amina, a young Rohingya refugee, escaped violence and persecution in Myanmar. Photo: ICMC / Nathalie Perroud

Geneva - On International Women's Day, ICMC draws attention to the plight of Rohingya women who, without legal recognition and often persecuted, are forced to flee to third countries in search of protection. On this occasion, we share the story of Amina*, a volunteer of the Refugee Women's Protection Corps (RWPC), a group of Burmese volunteers trained by ICMC to offer counseling and assistance to other refugees who suffered sexual or gender-based violence. Her story is a testimony of the challenges with which the Rohingya are faced and as a way of encouraging women worldwide to stand up for their rights. 

Amina is a 31-year-old Rohingya woman, originally from the Rakhine State of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). She arrived in Malaysia in 2011, escaping from persecution and lack of legal rights in her country. “I officially registered with UNHCR Malaysia to get refugee status, but because the process is long and complicated, I had to look for employment in order to sustain my family back in Myanmar”, she explained. “I have three sisters, aged between 18 and 30, and a brother, who is paralyzed from malaria because he could not access health services when he was a child. He is 35 years old and he can't speak, move and eat on his own. My mum is constantly looking after him. My whole family lives in Rangoon. It is very dangerous for them to be there, as Rohingya people face persecution and are under severe monitoring and control from State officials, who restrict free movement around the country.” In Myanmar, Rohingya people often get arrested by the police for no particular reason other than being part of this ethnic minority, and they are exposed to physical violence. “Once you get arrested, you have no idea what will happen to you. Life is extremely dangerous there”, Amina said.

As a Rohingya woman, Amina was lucky enough to access education until university level. This is extremely rare in Myanmar. “I was very lucky because my parents, especially my mum, were very supportive of me attending university. However, I couldn't study what I would have liked: I have applied for a degree course in international diplomacy in Rangoon, but because I am Rohingya, I was not able to access this course. Traveling to Rangoon is restricted for Rohingya people. So I studied English in Sittwe [the capital of Rakhine State] instead.”

The situation of Rohingya people is extremely difficult in Myanmar, but for Rohingya women it is even worse. There is a widespread belief that women do not need to access education, as they are meant to stay at home to care for their children. “As a Rohingya woman, you have to be very brave to be wanting to access education”, Amina said.

From the Rakhine State, Amina traveled to Rangoon illegally; she subsequently headed south, initially by bus, then by train. She reached Malaysia thanks to the help of an “agent” [a smuggler]. “I knew this was very risky for me, but I had no option. I have to support my family back in Myanmar. They can't work because, as Rohingya people, they lack recognition of their right to employment. And my older brother is paralyzed. He needs help and medical care.” Amina reported that she had to pay 2500 Malaysian Ringgit (approximately 600 USD) for her trip from Thailand to Malaysia. “I borrowed the money from my cousin. I don't regret it. Although the government of Malaysia still does not officially recognize refugees, life in Malaysia is much better than in Myanmar”, she added.

Amina's grandmother also left her home country. “She was sick and needed medical treatment. So she initially went to Rangoon. Eventually she decided to head south, to Thailand, where her son was living, and ended up staying there for three years. When she realized she would have never obtained the necessary papers to live legally in Thailand, she decided to come to Malaysia to apply for refugee status with UNHCR.” Amina explained that her grandmother, aged 83, hired an “agent” in Thailand to help her get to Malaysia. Amina continued: “My grandmother left Thailand by bus, then was embarked on a small canoe through the river at night, and ended up on a motorbike through the jungle. During the whole trip, I kept calling her “agent”, begging him to bring my grandmother alive to Malaysia, reassuring him that I had enough money to pay.”

Amina's grandmother finally managed to reach Malaysia and to obtain refugee status. Due to her deteriorating medical conditions, UNHCR soon referred her for resettlement to the United States. “At the age of 85, she will be flying to the United States on 9 March 2016 to start a new life there”, Amina said with excitement. When asked about her grandmother's feelings about this resettlement opportunity, Amina replied: “She is confused. She is old, and it is difficult for her to leave all her family behind. But she realizes that this is the only option for her to get the medical treatments she needs.”

“My parents also have medical problems, and they are getting old. I worry so much that I won't be able to see them anymore. I realize that the only chance for me to see them again is by resettling to a third country and getting citizenship, so that I can travel back to Myanmar as a tourist. I also worry that if something happens to me, they won't be able to survive, as I am the only person in the family earning an income”, Amira explained.

She added that she was glad that she could help her parents financially, but – as a stateless person with no legal status – it is challenging for her to regularly send money back to them. “I can't go to an official bank, because they'd ask me for an identity card and I don't have one. I have to go through private agencies to send remittances back home”.

Aside from being part of the RWPC, Amina currently works for other NGOs in Malaysia, as an interpreter and a community outreach trainer. “I work very hard here in Malaysia, doing different jobs seven days a week, because I need to sustain my whole family back in Myanmar. I feel like I don't have a private life. Yet, even though I have been working hard for several years now and I have been contributing to society through my labor, I am still seen as an irregular migrant here”, she said with a sad voice.

As part of her work, Amina reaches out to Rohingya people who have suffered from persecution and abuses, including sexual and gender-based violence. “I am glad that I now have the opportunity to help my own people. However, I feel like I have not fulfilled my potential. I can do more. I have many dreams, but my wings are tied because I am a stateless person. I cannot fly as high as I would like to.”

Amina explained that she would like to be more involved in the humanitarian field and help women fight for their rights. “Women - not only Rohingya, but also women from Syria, Somalia, and other warn-torn countries – are in need of protection and support. They need support to raise their voices. Women can be more than mothers or wives. They are capable of making better communities, significantly contributing to society, and making this world a better place."

* The name was changed to protect the identity of the person.

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Rohingya Exodus