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Bangladesh and the international community must ensure support to victims of sexual violence

Op-Ed by Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

Around 700,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh since last August - victims of a text-book case of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The refuge and welcome that Bangladesh has given them must count as one of the most generous responses in recent decades anywhere in the world.

There are no reliable figures for those killed at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces, but it is assumed to be several thousands. Likewise, we do not know how many Rohingya women and girls were raped in Rakhine. But the testimony of many refugees suggests that the crime was committed on a massive and systematic scale.

A recent report of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, found that the widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to the Myanmar military’s strategy, “humiliating, terrorizing and collectively punishing the Rohingya community and serving as a calculated tool to force them to flee their homelands and prevent their return”. When his Special Representative, Pramila Patten, visited Cox’s Bazar in late 2017, she heard accounts from almost every woman and girl of patterns of rape, gang rape, forced nudity and abduction for the purpose of sexual slavery during the “security operations” conducted by the military.

We fear that sexual violence may be continuing today, albeit on a much-reduced scale. When I visited Cox’s Bazar in March, I spoke to a Rohingya man who had arrived only days earlier, after he was badly beaten by members of the Myanmar military who abducted his 17-year-old daughter. He arrived in Bangladesh with no knowledge of her well-being or whereabouts, but he feared the worst – and others too recounted how girls have been abducted, and they assume raped and murdered.

For the victims of sexual violence who have made it to Bangladesh since August, their harrowing experiences continue. The situation in the camps is characterized by an overall lack of protection and care mechanisms for survivors of sexual violence, especially access to psychosocial support and sexual and reproductive health services. The services currently available fall short of meeting the needs of women and girls, due to limited funding, as well as administrative requirements that impede service delivery.

It is estimated that there are over 40,000 pregnant women and girls among the Rohingya refugee population, and a significant number of these pregnancies are the result of rape. In the absence of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health service – including prenatal, post-natal and delivery care, access to safe abortion and contraceptive options – the lives of these women and (in some cases very young) girls are at risk. These must be seen as life-saving services, as crucial as food, water and shelter. The risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth in fragile settings is twice as high as the maternal death rate in non-fragile settings, but we can prevent this happening if urgent action is taken.

It is a cruel coincidence that these completely unwanted pregnancies resulting from rape are due to come to term as Bangladesh prepares for its rain and monsoon seasons. Humanitarian actors are bracing themselves for the risk of floods and landslides, which would greatly exacerbate the situation for those due to give birth, potentially cutting off those in need of natal care from already limited services.

The victims of sexual violence are likely to face huge stigma within Rohingya society, as are the children who are born as a result of rape. Resources must be made available to ensure that victims of sexual violence and their children are protected and accepted into their families and society.

For the thousands of women and girls we believe were raped by the Myanmar military last year, their suffering continues. International efforts to pursue accountability for crimes, including sexual violence, and to prevent the recurrence of violations, are crucial. This is not least because refugees themselves are calling for accountability as a pre-condition for their safe return to their homeland. Work on documenting information that could be one day used to prosecute those responsible for these abhorrent crimes has already begun.

The Rohingya, and indeed the entire world, owe an immense debt of gratitude to the Government and people of Bangladesh for their generosity in hosting and providing for such a large refugee population. What is now crucial, though, is that Bangladesh receives proper support from the international community, helping it to ensure that adequate facilities are in place to alleviate the immense suffering and future challenges deriving from last year’s horrific campaign of mass rape.