Shedding new light on refugee women's safety in Bangladesh

News Stories, 19 February 2009

© UNHCR/S.Kritsanavarin
Women carry water from wells at Kutupalong camp. Solar-powered lighting will help improve womens' safety at water collection points.

KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh, February 19 (UNHCR) Taking a shower or going to the toilet in safety and privacy is such a basic right that billions of people all over the world never think twice about it.

But for thousands of girls and women in two refugee camps in Bangladesh, it was an exercise fraught with hazard for more than a decade. Modesty kept them from venturing to the communal bath houses or latrines in broad daylight, but night-time forays too often left them prey to harassment and even rape.

Today, all that has changed thanks to the installation of 61 solar-powered lights in Nayapara Camp and 43 in Kutupalong Camp. The two sites near Cox's Bazar in south-eastern Bangladesh are together home to 28,000 registered Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar who have been in exile since 1992.

"It's much better at night," says 30-year-old refugee Khaleda Begum in Kutupalong Camp. "The light is much better than before and I feel better about using the bathroom and toilet at night."

Installed by UNHCR at a cost of US$117,000, the lights to illuminate the previously pitch-dark camp are monitored by the refugees themselves, two of whom have been trained by the contractor to do basic maintenance in each camp.

They are part of a series of substantial improvements the UN refugee agency has been able to accomplish in partnership with the Bangladeshi government, other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations. As more new shelters are built in Nayapara Camp, more new solar lights will be installed as well.

The first focus was on bath houses, latrines and water collection points to improve women's safety. Other public areas have now been lit to allow refugees to move more freely throughout the camp at night. Many students are taking the opportunity to visit private tutors' homes to continue their studies in the evening.

And there's been a pay-off that no one in the West could ever have imagined. In the past, wild elephants occasionally rampaged through the camps and even killed three refugees in Kutupalong a few years ago.

"After the solar lighting was installed, there haven't been any more elephant attacks," reports Selim Reza Chowdhury, UNHCR field assistant in Kutupalong Camp.

By Kitty McKinsey in Kutupalong Camp, Bangladesh