Rohingya women who were able to escape the ongoing genocide by the Myanmar military have found a a safe haven in a sanctuary, where men aren’t allowed, inside Bangladesh's congested refugee settlements.
Known as the “widows’ camp,” the dilapidated shelter houses women and children traumatized by violence. These women were able to escape the atrocities but their husbands couldn’t, leaving them without food, shelter and safety in a border zone.
Among these women is Swaleha Begum, a woman who crossed the border alone after her husband, was killed in an army-led crackdown on their village. They got married just three months before his murder.
She is just 18 years old and is already playing a pioneering role in running the women-only encampment.
Nearly 60 widows work in this camp. They maintain separate bathrooms, run prayer sessions and share responsibility for scores of children and orphans.
Swaleha came up with the idea of a women-only camp because those who are married can be helped by their men but those who have lost their husbands, at the hands of Myanmar's military, are on their own.
"Those who have husbands can make their own accommodation using bamboo and tarpaulins," Swaleha told AFP.
One of her major duties is to make sure no men, not even teenage boys enter near these women-only shelters. According to aid workers, women and girls are at a major threat from predators and human traffickers roaming around these poorly supervised camps. The risk increases when women, who do not want to share toilets with men, go far away in the forest for the sake of privacy.
The International Organization for Migration has documented cases of refugee women being “lured away from the camps with promises of marriage or jobs that end instead in forced labor or sex work.”
According to the U.N. Women agency, “more than half the Rohingya refugees, who escaped the bloodshed in Myanmar's westernmost Rakhine state are women and children who have been subjected to unimaginable violence, have been raped, or witnessed sexual assault, murder or burning alive of their family and friends.”
Mabiya Khatun, who said her husband and two sons were butchered as their soldiers rammed their village, took pride in the solidarity among her "sisters" in the widows' camp.
"I like it here. I find it very peaceful. We get to live a life of respect here, a dignified life," she told AFP.
Thumbnail/Banner Image: Reuters, Mohammad Ponir Hossain