By Jurate Kazickas
December 17, 2013
A female refugee and her child at a displacement camp in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
Credit: UN Photo/David Ohana
Myanmar’s largest city of Yangon, at a conference bringing together women from around the country, women spoke confidently of their vision for a better future and their role in the political process.
But only a few hundred miles away, in the state of Rakhine, the second poorest in the country, in a crowded camp for families driven from their villages by ethnic and religious violence, the women feared for their lives and their uncertain future.
The situation for these people is so dire that a U.N. official could only say, “Not only is there no light at the end of the tunnel, there is no tunnel.”
A small group of us, six women and one man, came to Myanmar–formerly Burma–to attend a two-day conference sponsored in part by Columbia University and USAID and to visit the women of Rakhine. We were a delegation from the Women’s Refugee Commission to assess women’s participation in the country’s transition to democracy. The trip offered some startling contrasts.
More than 300 women gathered in Yangon to discuss such topics as women’s security, health, peace building and conflict prevention; critical in a country with more than 60 years of war and more than a dozen areas of ongoing fighting. U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell stressed the need for women to work together and create a broad women’s network to break down ethnic and religious boundaries.
The challenges the country faces on this issue only became apparent to us as after we left behind the razzle-dazzle of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, with its 14 acres of gilded temples and Buddhas with flashing neon halos, and flew an hour north to visit camps near Sittwe in Rakhine for internally displaced people.
Here, on a dusty plain, dozens of flimsy bamboo houses were erected in April for the 140,000 Muslims who were forced to flee from their villages last year to escape the violence from their Buddhist neighbors. We met with a group of nine Rohingya women and sat together on the floor, shoes left at the door as is the custom here. They told us stories of their eviction from their homes, many of which were burned to the ground. People drowned as they tried to escape in boats. One woman said she was one of only three survivors from a group of 100. She was quiet during our visit, staring off into the distance.
As Myanmar makes its steady transition from autocratic rule to democracy, the tensions between Buddhists and Muslims persist. Aid workers as well as many Burmese are disappointed that Aung San Sui Kyi, a Nobel Peace prize winner, has not spoken out more strongly on this discrimination and violence against Muslims. The prevalent view is that with elections scheduled for 2015 and her ambitions to be president, she does not want to alienate the Buddhist majority on this issue.
The group of Rohingya women complained about their living conditions, with several families living together in the house, sometimes as many as eight people to a room. They said they did not feel safe and were afraid of going to the latrines in the darkness of night. They said they had no voice in camp affairs since there were no women on the camp council. There was no school for the many children who scampered about, some naked in the hot sun.
In August, the International Red Cross opened a health clinic that offered the first medical care for this group of people in a year. The lone doctor there said he sees up to 230 patients a day. Respiratory and skin infections among the children are common. Food supplies were dwindling. Half of the water pumps were broken.
Too Much Time, No Money
Mostly the women were upset that they had nothing to do and no way to earn any money. They are not permitted to leave the camp. In their villages they used to help their husbands with fishing and farming, but now the men have no nets and no boats and no land for planting. They, too, are idle all day. Domestic abuse is on the rise.
The women wanted sewing machines to make clothes but there is no market for them. They asked for goats so they could eat and sell meat, but officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees pointed out there were land use restrictions.
“These people are running out of ways to cope,” said a U.N. officer. “They are desperate.” Some women are turning to “survival sex;” selling their bodies to provide for their families.
Mostly, the women said they wanted to go home. But at this time the government has no plan for these stateless people, neither a right of return nor the right to settle. In fact, they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though some of have lived in Myanmar for generations.
At the end of our visit, we thanked the women for sharing their stories. But then they said: visitors come, we talk to them, they listen, leave. Nothing changes for us. We, too, could not make any promises, though the Women’s Refugee Commission is considering sending an expert to evaluate feasible livelihoods.
“We need to help them build more positive coping strategies,” said Sarah Costa, executive director of the Women’s Refugee Commission, “building up secure in-camp economies, improving their access to basic survival needs and finding constructive ways to address their trauma, their fears and their idleness.”
Jurate Kazickas, a former Women’s eNews board member, is a writer living in New York City.
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