Paradoxical Safety Nets: Looking at the lives of Rohingya Women

By Gurmeet Kaur


Back in 2015, millions of Rohingyas fled Myanmar for the fear of persecution due to their religious identity. Nearly all of them reached South Asian countries like Bangladesh and India in the search of a safe shelter. Any discussion would be fruitless without taking into account the circumstances that led to the mass movements of Rohingyas. According to Majumdar[i], Rohingyas, a Muslim community of Rakhine state, have been living in Myanmar since the 10th century. During the period of colonialism in the Indian subcontinent, the poor section of the society moved between the countries as laborers. And so did they in Myanmar. However, the native suspicion persisted and Rohingyas as an ethnic group were excluded slowly and gradually. The new citizenship law of the1980s legitimized the exclusion of the Rohingya. They were denied citizenship. The Citizenship Act specified three channels through which to get citizenship – the most basic level being naturalization via proof of family residing in Myanmar prior to the Independence of Myanmar. But since most Rohingya did not have any evidence, they could not obtain citizenship. As a result, Myanmar military forced them to flee.


There is no apprehension that the South Asian countries and India, in particular, are well recognized for their welcoming nature for permitting refugees to enter. Ever since the Rohingyas started to take refuge in India, the native suspicion about their presence started to build up new challenges for them. Such suspicion had the most horrible impact on Rohingya women, since the Rohingya community is gender-segregated due to their religious affiliation. They experience the restriction on their mobility, as a result, their access to resources is quite limited. Thus, the subjugation of women is both social and political. These women have been experiencing gender-based violence all their life and they continue to face the same in the host country. Thus, it can be said that the lives of Rohingya women are constantly under threat because of their gender, statelessness, poverty, and religion.


The report of Equal Rights Review[ii] presented a narrative of Rohingya Woman, “Wai Wai Nu”, who stated that women have been discriminated more as compared to Rohingya men. The findings of the report of Plan International on Rohingya Women and girls reveals that their camp conditions are worse, there is a severe lack of security, and fear of violence is constantly present in them. The core of all the challenges that refugee women are facing is “Patriarchy”. Patriarchy has paralyzed both the social and political system and as a result, the world biggest minority, i.e. refugee women, suffer.


The report of Human Right Law Network[iii] unveils that Rohingya women do not have proper access to reproductive health care in camps in and near Delhi. The reasons listed are poor economic status, language barriers, no visits from ASHA workers, avoidance from management of Hospitals and shyness of Rohingya women to be checked by male doctors. Poor economic conditions do not only impact their reproductive health but it also makes them vulnerable to trafficking and prostitution. The fear of being at the receiving end of gender based violence is in fact legitimized by lack of legal provisions for refugees in India. In other words, the safety net for refugee women in India and Bangladesh is a paradox. In fact, the safety net or safe shelter is a utopian dream for refugee women in a patriarchal society like India.


Looking at their issues from a feminist standpoint, refugee women, and in particular Rohingya women, are treated as “Others”. Subramaniam has shown in a study[iv] that refugee women experience much more freedom when they live in settlement camps. But their freedom is not seen as empowerment; rather it is seen as a violation of honor in their community. Such a situation induces another form of violence against the women, namely “Honor Killings”. From all the studies, it can be observed that in the 21st century, Rohingya women and girls are the biggest example of human rights violations in South Asia.


[i] Majumder S. (2015), “Rohingyas Languishing behind the Bar”, Policies and Practices 71- Rohingys in India: Birth of a Stateless community, Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, p.1 [ii] The Equal Right Review (2016), “Layers of Marginalisation: Life for Rohingya Women ( Testimony from Myanmar)”, Volume 16. [iii] Human Right Law Network (2018), “ Rohingya Refugee: Fact finding report”, New Delhi, India. [iv] Subramaniam A. (2017), “A Perpetrator Narrative on Domestic Violence: Case Study of Rohingya Masculinities in Refugee Camps”, Graduate Journal of the School Of Public Policy and Governance, Tata Institute Of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. Pp. 1-22

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