For every one of the almost one million Rohingya living in camps in camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, life is an incomprehensible struggle. The winding, malodourous labyrinth of tarpaulins and bamboos stretches for kilometres and within each tiny tent are families with stories of loss, grief and futility.
Survival in this place – where no human should have to live – is the main objective of each day: the men line up for hours to collect food distributions, children carry firewood and bundles of sticks to light fires to cook with. Groups of men haul bamboo day and night to construct dwellings for newcomers as the ever-expanding camp swells.
But for the girls here, particularly teenage girls, it is hell. Most live out their days here in this hot and unsanitary place confined to tents no bigger than a few metres square.
Some cook for their families and spend their days praying. Some care for younger siblings or their own children. Few venture outside, only once a day, early in the morning or at night, to use the toilet.
Voices of Rohingya children and teens
Plan International has launched a new report - Childhood Interrupted: Voices from the Rohingya Refugee Crisis - in partnership with Save the Children and World Vision International. In December, the three organisations conducted a series of workshops with children and teens living in the camps to determine what they fear, what they need and how we can make life more comfortable for them while they are stuck in this grim purgatory.
Teenage girls told us that first and foremost, they felt afraid.
A few of the focus groups involved teenage girls. They told us that first and foremost, they felt afraid. Afraid of going outside, worried about landslides and the coming torrential rains, scared of what lies in wait when they’re forced to walk into the jungle to collect firewood. Teenage girls who have small children say their kids no longer attend school and worry about their future.
Even now in the spring, it is hot. In summer it will be unbearable. And no-one knows what will become of these precarious structures, built mass-like, one on top of the other, when the monsoonal floods come in March. How many teenage girls, trapped inside their tarpaulin prisons as this unstable place implodes under the weight of the torrential rain, will perish? How many will contract water-borne diseases?
Added risks for adolescent girls
Menstrual hygiene products are scarce. The masses of unfamiliar men are frightening. They’ve no prospects, no money and very little hope.
Unlike the boys and younger girls, many of whom have adapted to this place and play with the other kids nearby, teenage girls are considered adults. Religious protocol and safety fears severely restrict their freedom.
They have few friends if any. Many have witnessed or survived horrific sexual assaults. The sense of boredom and hopelessness is profound.
Rohingya people, particularly women and girls, have an inadequate supply of water and bathing facilities. Acess to toilets and showers remains challenging and some deliberately restrict their food and water intake to avoid having to use the bathroom, or are using makeshift toilets inside their homes (or defecate in the open).
Women and adolescent girls refrain from going to the toilet at night, partly out of the cultural belief that they should not go out at night, but mostly because they are scared of their personal security.
The majority of adolescent girls here do not attend school. They cannot read or write. Some will be married early as a means of protection and survival.
Safety and dignity for girls are priorities
Plan International is working to support these girls with the establishment of adolescent-friendly spaces, where they can find relief from their solitary existence, meet others, establish friendships and access counselling. Their opinions and voices will be heard and they will be listened to.
Their dignity, too, is a priority. As well as the installation of 200 bathing spaces for women and girls, Plan International has distributed 12,000 dignity kits to young women, with reusable menstrual hygiene and bathing products, so they at least can feel clean and safe.
Girls need segregated toilets and bathing spaces. They need better lighting to find their way at night and for safety. And they need social support to help them recover from the horrific trauma many have suffered.
Teenage girls need to be involved in activities to take measures to improve their feeling of safety and they need safe spaces where they can access counselling and develop social networks.
Finally, world leaders must urge the Bangladeshi Government to allow aid agencies access to those in need, particularly teenage girls, and the international community must commit to fully funding the humanitarian response without delay.
The future is uncertain but with support from aid organisations and governments and donations from the caring public, we can help make the camps more comfortable and safe for the teenage girls who for now, call this place home.