In the words of Minara: “I am more confident and determined to serve my community”

Minara is a Rohingya refugee and survivor who fled the conflict in Myanmar in August 2017. Since arriving in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, she has joined UN Women’s program that empowers refugee women to lead and participate in decision-making processes in the camps.

She shares her story and explains her role as a Community Outreach Volunteer, working to stop the escalating violence against women, while recovering and rebuilding from COVID-19.

Minara. Photo: UN Women/Mahmudul Karim

“I was five months pregnant when we fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh. It took seven days, walking through the countryside. It was a devastating journey – we didn’t even have proper food to eat. I was broken and exhausted.

Upon reaching the camps in Cox’s Bazar, I joined a nutrition programme. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with humanitarian actors from NGOs and the United Nations. I have learned a lot about gender equality and human rights. When we were in Myanmar, we were not aware of these things, and Rohingya women didn’t know they have rights. Having participated in many training sessions about gender-based violence, child marriage, and protection against sexual exploitation from UN Women and UNHCR, I am more confident and determined to serve my community.

During this pandemic, I have conducted awareness raising sessions with Rohingya women and girls in the refugee camps about personal cleanliness and hygiene, handwashing, and how to cope if anyone contracts COVID-19. I have also provided information about preventing sexual exploitation and abuse, since there is a higher risk now with fewer humanitarian actors present in the camp due to lockdown measures. I inform women how and where to report abuse, including child marriage.

Child marriage is one of the main reasons for domestic violence, forced and unsafe pregnancies, and abortions in the refugee camps here. I am responsible for providing awareness sessions for 40 blocks within my assigned camp. Due to COVID-19, we prefer one-on-one sessions, keeping a safe physical distance and maintaining hygiene measures during the sessions. I support and refer a victim of child marriage to the Camp in Charge offices and I refer survivors to the UN Women “Multi-Purpose Women Centre” where they can get psychosocial support and life skills training.

Last week, a 16-year-old girl came to me and said her parents were forcing her to marry a man twice her age. I met with her parents and informed them about the negative consequences of child marriage. I told them it would be devastating for her and her child’s mental and physical health if she got pregnant. Divorce rates are higher with child marriages. It is also illegal (to marry a girl under 18 years), so they would not be able to register the marriage. Without registration, the marriage wouldn’t be legally valid, and if she got divorced, she would not even receive alimony.

During the conversation, I discovered that the parents wanted to marry off their daughter because they were worried about her security. I told them that the marriage had a higher chance of failing, and then she would be in even greater trouble. Finally, I succeeded in convincing them.

I believe that Rohingya women and girls are incredibly bright – their minds are sharper than computers. But they need access to education to improve their situation.”