For some Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong – the world’s largest refugee camp – nightfall brings fear. It is often the time when the day’s tensions boil over and male-on-female violence is unleashed. The flimsy tarpaulin and bamboo walls of the shelters mean neighbours are all too aware of what is happening.
Gender-based violence has been a pernicious problem here since the population exploded five years ago with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing violence in Myanmar. Some 650,000 refugees are now crammed into a 13 square kilometre area. With few opportunities to earn an income, education limited, privacy lacking and a dearth of role models, men have too often taken out their frustrations on women. That violence has accompanied other harmful practices like human trafficking, child marriage and dangerous onward journeys to other countries -- all of which UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is trying to address.
One initiative offers reason for hope. Trained and mobilized by UNHCR and partners, young refugees are coming together in male, female and mixed groups, to raise awareness about these harmful behaviours. The progammes – SASA, Girls Shine and Male Role Models -- offer the young volunteers purpose, fulfillment and a small stipend. And they are yielding results.
"Before, people never understood the impact of this violence on their families."
The volunteers share information with their communities at mosques, tea stalls, community centres and by going door-to-door. Sometimes they refer cases for mediation by religious or camp leaders. The volunteers also advocated to create a committee to liaise with camp authorities, to help reduce the prevalence of child marriage.
At a recent awareness session, Jaber, 22, a male SASA member, explained how he had learned to use his “power” for positive ends. “When I arrived, I wasn't doing anything, just hanging around,” he said. Through SASA he learned about abuse of power and domestic violence. “I used to beat my younger siblings. I realized this was wrong and now use my power within to help the community.”
Beauty, 25, a female SASA member, described changes in her husband. “Before, my husband never did any work. He gambled and was violent. Since I joined SASA, I was able to educate him. Now he has changed. If I am sick, he cooks for me, or if the children are sick, he takes them to the clinic. Before, people never understood the impact of this violence on their families. But because of our programme, people understand better and are changing.”
Male volunteers identify those perpetrating violence through their networks or via first-hand evidence, and approach them privately, gaining their confidence, perhaps over tea or betel nut, to explain how damaging their behaviour is. “For us, it’s about trust-building with the men, informing them,” Mohammed, a member of the Male Role Models, said. “In the early days, polygamy was up, and so was early marriage and intimate partner violence. We have been trying to explain the consequences. It means we can do something constructive for the community.”
Several of the men described how, since joining the programme, they had also started to help around the home, chopping vegetables or collecting water. One said he had agreed his wife could become a teacher-volunteer, something he would never have considered previously. “We have a long way to go,” he said. “We need more help, training for more trainers.”
In the last five years, UNHCR has established 47 service points for gender-based violence survivors across the 17 camps in Cox’s Bazar, offering case management, psychosocial support and referrals. There are over 1,000 community volunteers working on gender-based violence prevention and response. Women and girls’ safe spaces offer a confidential haven, while community engagement centres allow men to decompress and learn about the issues. Similar activities are underway on Bhasan Char Island, host to around 27,000 Rohingya.
As the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign draws to a close, UNHCR is continuing to appeal for more support for these programmes. UNHCR’s operation in Bangladesh is facing funding gaps – it has received just 42 per cent of its 2022 funding needs of US$285.1 million, and these programmes might suffer.
Beauty, the SASA member, said the programme had made a huge change in behaviour and urged that it be continued “for the future well-being of the community.”
Having changed his ways, Jaber is looking ahead. “When I get married, I want to have a healthy relationship with my family, and never use my power over my wife. I’ll behave in a positive way,” he said.
“It’s important to respect women and treat them well.”