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Bangladesh: Offering a Comfortable Space for Women and Children

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As of September, 2019, more than 910,000 refugees from Rakhine State, in the western part of Myanmar, live in Cox’s Bazar Province, which is located in the south-eastern part of Bangladesh. Since the mass human exodus in August 2017, the most vulnerable people, particularly women and children, are living a perilous life that is fraught with fear. For example, some people report that they can never feel secure, not even in their temporary accommodation, because they cannot expect to have their privacy protected when the refugee camp is so overcrowded with shelters. To make matters worse, traffickers of women and children, who try to lure them into taking up a “well-paid” job outside the camp or abroad, are rampant in refugee camps. Moreover, in refugee communities, where men play a dominant role under the patriarchal norms, domestic violence and abuse are seldom taken seriously, and as a result, gender-based violence never ceases to exist.

In collaboration with our local partner “NGO Forum for Public Health”, since November 2018, AAR Japan has been running four facilities to allow women and children to live in peace – two facilities for CFS (Children Friendly Space) and two facilities for WFS (Women Friendly Space).

“I can write my name.” “I love drawing.”

At CFS, children can enjoy non-formal education in Burmese, English and math; public awareness-raising campaigns on hygiene and safety and also on children’s rights; and recreational activities, such as drawing and acting. Children can always turn to counselors, who can give them much-needed emotional and mental support. Those in need of professional support, such as medical services, are referred to relevant institutions for whatever support or treatment that may be deemed necessary. Mohammad (age 10), who regularly shows up at CFS, proudly said, “My favorite activities at CFS are reading and drawing. I love studying. I can now write my name!”

“I enjoy studying, acting, and drawing pictures of flowers,” said Noor (age 11). Apart from the time she spends at CFS, she also studies at a learning center (a temporary school) run by another support organization, helps her mother with family commitments (such as getting water, cooking and cleaning) and even helps with sending her siblings to the learning center.

Manik, one of the staff in charge of cultural activities at CFS, is responsible for teaching origami and crafts. When asked about the changes he noticed among the children, he said, “I would say, children have become more sociable than before. At first, they found it difficult to communicate with people on a basic level, such as greeting others or introducing themselves. Now that they have learned to interact with others by participating in a variety of activities at CFS. They have become able to greet those they meet for the first time and to introduce themselves. I feel that they now have no difficulty communicating with others.”

He continued, “Children can also share with their family members something they have learned in public awareness-raising sessions. In my cultural session, I have noticed another change. At first, children would draw the scenes of violence that they had experienced or witnessed in Myanmar, but now they draw landscapes instead.” Some of the children who have witnessed brutal violence in Myanmar, and are still exposed to the harsh environment in the camp, are suffering from trauma and stress. When asked what he is paying particular attention to, while dealing with such children, he replied: “When children fall silent and withdraw into their own shells, without much response to my approach, that is the sign that they are depressed or have a problem. Under such circumstances, I try to invite them to a cultural activity, where they can find friends around them. If that doesn’t work, I can refer them to my colleague who works as a counsellor, asking her to provide an appropriate, sustainable method of support.”

Gaining Confidence through Participation in Activities

WFS offers work therapy, a therapy by which stress can be alleviated through activities such as craft, public awareness-raising sessions and discussions on women’s rights, as well as on safety and hygiene in the camp, together with counselling for the victims of violence resulting from gender.

Ajubahar (age 40), one of the WFS participants at the Alikhali camp, said, “With the friendly staff around, WFS is a precious space where I can get away from my routine housework. I enjoy all the activities offered there, but my favorite is work therapy. I can carry on with the craftwork I learned there at WFS and also at home afterwards.” Except for the time she spends at WFS, she commits herself to housework and childcare, but she practices the skills she learned at WFS whenever she has some free time. Asked how she felt about her life at the camp, she replied, “Compared to Myanmar, it is peaceful here. Life is not easy, but at least I can enjoy a peaceful life.”

Another participant, Ramjan (age 27), said, “Among the activities offered at WFS, I like sewing. Sewing skills are quite useful in daily life, because I can mend clothes and I can even teach others how to sew. The public awareness-raising sessions are also very beneficial, because I can always learn something new by attending these sessions at WFS.” In Myanmar, her husband left her and married someone else. There is no way to contact him, so she has to be responsible for all the family matters, including the housework, while at the same time taking care of her elderly mother, her daughter and other three young children. She continued, “At the camp, shopping and carrying heavy things are usually done by men, but I have no choice other than to do that on my own. How I miss the days when my husband was with me and helped me with such chores!”

Lima, the center manager at WFS at the Alikhali camp, spoke of the changes she has witnessed among women. “I have noticed that, through the public awareness-raising campaign, the hygiene practices among women have changed here. For one thing, instead of walking barefoot, they now wear sandals. In addition, they practice more hygienic practices, such as keeping their clothes clean and washing their hands. Not only that, these women encourage their children and family members to carry out these same practices.”

While taking part in the activities at WFS, women used to be faced with various challenges. For example, there have been cases where some women were verbally abused on the street. This is because, in a community of refugees, women are discouraged from going out due to cultural and religious restrictions. Also, since only women were allowed access to WFS, some men would suspect that women must have been wrongly misled and brainwashed inside the facility.

In order to solve this issue, the staff at WFS started a campaign so that other people in the camp would have a better understanding of their facility. They went around the camp, explaining what WFS is about and what activities are offered there. In addition, they offered an opportunity for the people in their community to show them around the premises of WFS. The result is that there have been fewer cases where the participants are verbally abused on their way to WFS. Moreover, we have started public awareness-raising campaigns on a regular basis – not only at WFS, but also in our community – thus providing local people with knowledge of the rights of women and children and also information about hygiene issues.

When asked about the role that WFS plays in the camp, Lima said, “Women had no choice but to stay at home until WFS was established. However, they now have a space where they can choose to spend their free time. By participating in a variety of activities, women can express their opinions and are gaining confidence. I also hear from them that what they have learned through work therapy has proved to be useful in their daily lives. At first, they said that, to them, WFS was simply a place for fun activities and for relaxation. However, I am happy to hear them say that they now learn a lot of things here at WFS.”

Life in the camp is indeed harsh, but WFS and CFS have turned out to be safe places, where women and children can interact with each other and seek advice for whatever issues they have. These places have developed into becoming a part of the refugees’ lives, because they can learn how to protect themselves from danger, and how to live a more hygienic and healthy life, in addition to alleviating their stress through recreational activities and therapy. Since it is difficult to predict when the refugees will be able to return to Myanmar, they may have to stay in the camp much longer than they had expected. For this reason, AAR promise to continue to support these refugees in the camp, so that their human rights can be respected. Your continued support would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Misa Machimura from Bangladesh

After graduating from college with a degree in development studies, Machimura committed herself to the cultural exchange programs in the Middle East and went through an internship at an NGO. Machimura then worked for a pharmaceutical company, after which she joined AAR. After being involved in initiating the inclusive education in Tajikistan, she was stationed in Bangladesh, where she has been working ever since. Machimura is from Hokkaido.

(profile as of the date of the article)

Japanese-English translation by Ms. Yoko Natsume

English editing by Mr. Richard Whale

This article has been translated by volunteers as part of the AAR Japan's Volunteer Programme. Their generous contributions allow us to spread our activities and ideas globally, through an ever-growing selection of our reports from the field.