Trapped in their tents, isolated from society, adolescent Rohingya girls describe for the very first time the true extent of their prison-like existence in a new report launched on World Refugee Day (June 20) by child rights and humanitarian organisation Plan International.
The report, Adolescent Girls in Crisis: Voices of the Rohingya, is based on in-depth interviews conducted with 300 Rohingya refugee girls aged between 10 and 19 years old living in the refugee camps outside Cox’s Bazar.
Confined to tiny shelters measuring just a few square feet, where temperatures soar close to 40°C each day, the girls interviewed in the study reveal how they have been condemned to a life where they spend almost 24 hours a day inside their stifling tents.
Trapped and scared
Many spoke of how they would like to step outside more, but explained that they cannot leave their shelters due to the limitations imposed on them by their communities, the attitudes their families hold, as well as their families’ fears of violence in the camps.
There is no doubt that adolescent Rohingya girls are one of the greatest victims in this humanitarian crisis.
With such tight restrictions on their freedom of movement, the report makes it clear that the girls who took part in this study have had one of their most basic human rights snatched away from them – and Plan International argues that urgent action must be taken to improve the conditions in which they are being forced to live.
“There is no doubt that adolescent Rohingya girls are one of the greatest victims in this humanitarian crisis,” said Orla Murphy, Plan International’s Country Director in Bangladesh.
“The cramped and overcrowded conditions – not only in the camps, but also inside the tiny tents they now call home – are having a devastating impact on their lives.
“Many of them have witnessed horrific violence and are in urgent need of assistance, but they cannot access any of the services on offer to help them cope with what they’ve been through. Instead, they spend almost every hour of every day inside their sweltering tents, where the only activities they have to keep themselves occupied are cooking and cleaning. They long to go to school, to go outside, to make new friends, and to rebuild their lives, but none of these things are possible for them under the current conditions in which they live.”
Girls have spoken - world must listen
Plan International is urging the whole humanitarian community to urgently address the needs of safety, education, sanitation, food security and healthcare – including mental health services – that Rohingya girls currently lack and have themselves spoken strongly about in the research report.
According to the organisation, the unique needs of adolescent girls are routinely ignored in responses to humanitarian crises.
“Girls do not receive targeted assistance simply because of their sex and their age. As a result, they commonly fall through the cracks,” said Murphy.
“When we spoke to the girls who took part in this research, they told us that this was the first time they had ever been asked for their opinion. What they have told us makes it clear that we must not assume that just because a service exists, everyone can access it. If girls’ voices continue to be ignored, they will remain invisible and the services set up in the camps will continue to overlook their needs.
“It is our duty to ensure that the needs of everyone affected by this crisis are met. The findings in the report make it very clear that we are failing in that duty. We must all do better to respond to the specific circumstances that adolescent girls are currently faced with.”
For instance, the research found that one-fifth of girls aged 15-19 were currently, or had previously been, married.
Rohingya girls need safe spaces
Plan International is also advocating for adolescent girls to be supported so that they feel safe and protected whether within the family home or through the creation of safe spaces for them to spend time with their peers.
Girls still have hope for the future, and we need to keep it that way.
In addition, the organisation is calling for greater understanding of the cultural dynamics that affect girls, and for targeted work that focuses on identifying, challenging and addressing gender-based discriminatory attitudes within the community so that all girls can realise their potential and are given the same opportunities as boys.
“As we have seen with the case of South Sudan – where one in four girls told us that they had felt suicidal at least once in the past year – so many of those caught up in crisis situations have lost hope. Fortunately, this has not yet happened in Cox’s Bazar – girls still have hope for the future, and we need to keep it that way. It is imperative that we act now to prevent the tragic situation of girls in South Sudan being repeated here in Bangladesh,” said Murphy.