SAFE space and fresh start for refugee survivors of sexual and gender-based violence

Rohingya Society Malaysia opens a shelter for Rohingya refugee survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and their families in the Klang Valley.


SAFE space and fresh start for refugee survivors of sexual and gender-based violence

Rohingya Society Malaysia, the UN Refugee Agency in Malaysia and Selangor Welfare Council officiate the launch of the SAFE shelter.   © UNHCR/M.Goh


31 January 2018 - A safe transitional home run by refugees have opened its doors to Rohingya refugee survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and their families in the Klang Valley.

Set up and run by the Rohingya Society of Malaysia (RSM), this transitional home was established through funding from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency’s ‘SAFE From the Start’ (SFS) project, a programme to respond to and prevent SGBV through community-based initiatives.

It is also supported by the Selangor Welfare Council (SWC) and a Rohingya women’s empowerment group, the Rohingya Women Development Network (RWDN).

“This project demonstrates the positive result of collaboration and partnership among Malaysians, refugee communities, and the United Nations in supporting and empowering the Rohingya refugee community,” said Richard Towle, UNHCR Representative.

“What we hope to see in the future is a strong and self-reliant Rohingya community, able to take charge of their own protection and better able to help their own vulnerable population.”

In 2017, UNHCR partnered with SWC to train refugee community influencers in preventing and responding to SGBV, including in carrying out case management and support to SGBV survivors in transitional homes and assessing appropriate interventions.

The shelter is managed full time by a team of trained Rohingya refugee workers, led by a Rohingya refugee woman, Kushida. 

“When a Rohingya women and husband fights, a Rohingya woman does not have any place to go. They don’t have any relatives so they can’t simply go to the streets and they don’t have anybody so it is good that there is a shelter for them,” said Kushida.

According to Kushida, most of the survivors escape at night and with the help of many NGOs and UNHCR, the survivors will be arranged to be brought to the shelter. The shelter will soon be able to accommodate six survivors at one time, many of whom may have experienced domestic violence and other forms of SGBV.

There are some 150,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, with some 60,000 of them being Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Many have experienced sexual and gender-based violence during their flight from Myanmar, or while they have been here in Malaysia. The challenge is to ensure survivors have a safe space to turn to where they can receive temporary shelter and support.

Domestic violence, the most reported form of SGBV, is still very much considered a private, family matter, and the stigma and lack of awareness results in survivors being isolated and exposed to further harm. Engaging with the refugee communities to shift from passive to meaningful participation to address SGBV requires time and concerted effort.

A refugee coordinator from RSM, Rahmat, said that one of the first to receive shelter here will be a 50-year-old Rohingya refugee woman domestically abused by her sister and daughter.

“She is an old woman, and she has nowhere to go. She is now financially burdened by hospital bills and has not received food and shelter for a week,” said Rahmat.

“This shelter is for whoever that needs help or a temporary home, especially women who face domestic violence. Some husbands disappear or go missing therefore this transitional home is to help them instead of them resulting to living on the streets.”

Survivors stay at the transitional home for a period of no more than two months. During their stay, residents of the transitional home will be case-managed, referred for appropriate services,  and be given opportunities to learn livelihood skills, such as baking and sewing, to empower them to earn a living, be self-sufficient, and start a new life. Before being re-integrated into their community, shelter workers will assist survivors to reconnect with safe family links or identify safe housing alternatives.

“What we hope is for survivors to be able to stand on their own without depending on others, not even their husbands,” said Kushida.