Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 27, 2020
Shadow pandemic within the garb of Covid19 in Rohingya camps

As the global attentiveness towards addressing the Covid-19 pandemic is reaching its peak, the ubiquitous crisis of violence against women and children is rising in its frequency. The lockdown measure declared by several nations as an antidote to restrict the spread of the virus has proven to be quite fatal for the latter. While the women and children are suffering throughout the world, the refugee, stateless and `displaced population are facing major setbacks.

Pervasiveness of sexual violence around the world among displaced and asylum seekers are estimated to be around 21.4 per cent. This hints to the fact that around one in five or six displaced or refugee women, girls are victims of sexual abuse at the hands of those in power which includes their husbands, fathers or brothers. While the surveys conducted on the same are mostly through telephonic conversations, however this misses out a section bereft of any technological or individual freedom. The displaced Rohingyas marooned within the camps of Bangladesh are one such section. It is thus important to understand the impact of this shadow pandemic on the women and girls currently residing within the camp areas.

The arrival of Covid-19 in Cox’s Bazar district and the subsequent lock down within camp areas poses significant peril due to the reduction of the already minimal services provided to the displaced people. There has been a significant reduction of humanitarian footprints within the camp areas. With about 40,000 people per square kilometer living in semi permanent structures made of bamboo and plastic close to one another, adhering to proper norms of lockdown, maintaining sanitation and hygiene practices or social distancing seems quite incongruous. Women and girls comprise 51 percent of the said population. Not only are they susceptible to the health risks; but also, the existing danger of Gender Based Violence (GBV) now being referred to as the Shadow Pandemic which is on an increase.

Imbalanced power structure

According to recent reports and interviews, it is quite striking to observe that within the camp areas around 81 percent of the violence is generally inflicted by those close to the victims. This is popularly known as the Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). This sort of violence is not limited to, physical and sexual abuse, but includes emotional violence, neglect and denial of resources. Most displaced women of IPV report experiencing several forms of GBV. However, the particular prevalence of physical assault, on majority of women reflects the ongoing dangers of deeply embedded patriarchal norms present within the Rohingya community.

Women generally remain within purdah, have very little to say or make any significant decisions. The norms on gender have hardly altered during the pandemic. The authority of making decisions is still firmly dominated and controlled by men. This is restraining the ability of women and girls to make their health or other procuring decisions. Thus, if truth be told women are unable to make significant life-sustaining choices around Covid-19.

Domestic violence acquires a more normal course in the daily lives of both men and women. With apparently no visible income structures, failed repatriation efforts or future stability the frustration and failure the men face outside are often taken out inside on their wives and children. Covid-19 has further exacerbated this situation where men are home and wives are expected to obey and respect them without questioning or flinching. There is also a noted amplification in child marriage, a halt in education and livelihood services.

Like any other community, women are conditioned from their very childhood to consider any form of violence specifically while faced at home as “private”. Consequently, they do not question or speak about it. This conditioning hinders them from opening up and discussing the cruelty they are subjected to. While there are women centric and child friendly spaces, within the camp areas where they have learnt to share, and receive guidance regarding their rights and remedies, however, the current pandemic have led these spaces to shut down. Thus, the psycho-social needs of these women are currently unmet.

Additionally, it is hard for women to address these problems due to the existing power dynamics within the community. The key community persons in power are Majhees who are essentially men. These men are highly respected community leaders who are involved in making wide ranging decisions whether resolving somebody’s personal or community matters or addressing disputes. These men are also the torchbearers of traditional gender roles and they are continuing to do so despite the pandemic.

Deepening role of external players

The government along with the support from humanitarian partners has been trying to engage women and girls in the design and delivery of response for quite some time now. Gender mainstreaming has been one of the core initiatives adopted by them to counter the patriarchal ideology. The Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) Network continues to work with different sectors within the camp areas in order to operationalise safe and conflict-sensitive reporting mechanisms.

In order to do so innovative approaches have been worked out accommodating psychosocial support and life skills actions for women and girls as a part of Covid-19 response. Trained women and adolescent girls are able to maintain their skill development. They are presently sewing masks for their communities and families.

While such actions have motivated to help empower many women, however movement restrictions linger. Despite the presence of government-run services such as hospital-based One Stop Crisis Centres (OCCs), women police help desks as well as GBV service entry points, gaps remain in ensuring adequate coverage of safe and quality GBV services. This has been partly due to the reduction of staffs post Covid-19 alarm. Having said so, training of staff remains crucial as in most of the instances of reported cases; data confidentiality has been breached to a third party. Such actions may bring about more violence at home or outside. Moreover, community-level GBV prevention and outreach activities initially side-lined, to focus on Covid-19 awareness campaigns needs to be resumed. Furthermore, dialogues with Majhees to challenge and control harsh or destructive behavior needs to be implemented.

Food for thought

It is important for the authorities to persistently remind themselves that lower reporting should not be misinterpreted as a decline in GBV cases. More innovative approaches need to be worked out in order to ensure safe reporting of cases. To guarantee more interventions, funding remains vital. At present, around $64 million is required to ensure the essential flow of activities already undertaken by the sub sector.

At a national level, survivors of the sexual violence who are victimised will continue to face significant barriers in accessing any form of justice if the state legal machineries continue to be less explicit towards the displaced people. Improving access to state justice mechanisms will necessitate international investment to ease pressure on its legal composition as well as pending cases.

In the current wake of events it is necessary that the government along with the humanitarian partners work together to address this mounting issue which is mostly shoved aside. While being sensitive to the cultures and traditions of the displaced people, the responsibility of these agencies to remain attentive not to buttress, or to intensify, gender inequality in its response system and care remains fundamental. Services to tackle this shadow pandemic are essential and should be given its due importance. It needs to continue to be a decisive component of the Covid-19 strategy, planning and response system.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Sreeparna Banerjee

Sreeparna Banerjee

Sreeparna Banerjee is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation Kolkata with the Strategic Studies Programme.

Read More +