Securing Women Rights during the Rohingya Crisis

  1. Introduction and Historical Background of The Rohingya Conflict

During the past 60 years the main victims of war have been civilians, among which majority is women. The protection of civilians during armed conflict is a priority of international humanitarian law.[1] IHL also identifies and protects particularly vulnerable civilian groups such as women, children and the displaced[2]. Civilian population in its whole has to suffer torture, summary execution, abusive arrest, forced transfers, hostages, threats and intimidations. Beside these women also has to face gender infringements such as rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced inseminations. Together with their children, women represent the biggest percentage of refugees or transferred population[3]. It’s estimated that, since 1990, at global scale, from all deaths related to the armed conflicts, 90% are civilians and 70% of this percentage is represented by women[4].

Over a million Rohingya refugees have fled violence in Myanmar since the early 1990s. The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar. The latest exodus began on 25 August 2017, when violence broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, driving more than 723,000 to seek refuge in Bangladesh. The vast majority reaching Bangladesh are women and children, among which 49 percent are women and more than 40 per cent are under age 12. Many others are elderly people requiring additional aid and protection. They have nothing and need everything[5].

  1. Rights of the Rohingya Women under International Law

The ongoing situation with the Rohingya crisis is being specified by UNHCR as an emergency, and states all over the world has been calling it the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people.[6] The expression “ethnic cleansing” has been used in resolutions of the Security Council and the General Assembly, and has been acknowledged in judgments and indictments of the ICTY.[7] A United Nations Commission of Experts while looking into the violations in former Yugoslavia defined ethnic cleansing in its final report S/1994/674, “… A purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.[8]” The Commission of Experts also stated that the coercive practices used to remove the civilian population can include: murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, severe physical injury to civilians, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, use of civilians as human shields, destruction of property, robbery of personal property, attacks on hospitals, medical personnel, among others. The Commission of Experts added that these practices can “… constitute crimes against humanity and can be assimilated to specific war crimes. Furthermore, such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention, which has been ratified by Myanmar.” Civilians, not combatants, make up the largest number of casualties during genocide and ethnic cleansing, and among civilians, women are particularly exposed and victimized. Parties to a conflict are required under IHL to protect the health, economic and physical security of the civilian population. When they fail, it is often women who have to deal with the consequences.[9] The most recent Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (SVAC) dataset covers sexual violence during 129 conflicts active between 1989 and 2009 and post conflict. The dataset focuses on actions conducted by armed actors, including active state militaries, pro-government militias (PGMs), and rebel groups. According to the SVAC dataset, 42% of state actors were reported as

perpetrators of sexual violence at some point during the study period, whereas the study received reports of sexual violence conducted by only 24% of rebel groups and 17% of militias.[10]

  1. Reported Violence and Violations of Humanitarian Rights against Rohingya Women

Like all civilians, women are protected both against abusive treatment by the Party to the conflict in whose power she finds herself against effects of hostilities. A civilian is any person who does not belong to the armed forces.[11] International humanitarian law gives expression in law to the fundamental principle of the equality of men and women,[12] It is also specified that women “shall in all cases benefit by treatment as favorable as that granted to men[13]” In addition to the general protection from which all civilians benefit, “women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honor, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution or any form of indecent assault.”[14] CEDAW states that ‘States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.[15]’ Also, UDHR Article 1[16] and 2[17] ensures equality of all human beings, Article 3[18] right to life, Article 5[19] protection against torture, Article 6[20] and 7[21], equality and recognition by state and law, Article 9[22] arbitrary arrest, and article 15[23] right to nationality, all of them are being violated in the current Rohingya crisis, especially against women.

It is estimated that more than 6700 Rohingya including 730 children were killed in August 2017 alone. The crackdown was in response to attacks on Myanmar border posts in October 2016 by Rohingya insurgents.[24] The Myanmar army have been accused of wide-scale human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, arson and infanticides[25], claims which the government dismisses as “exaggerations”. On December 5, 2017 the United Nations’ human rights chief, Zeid bin Ra’ad, announced that the Rohingya persecution may constitute genocide under international human rights laws.[26]

The military crackdown on the Rohingya people has drawn criticism from the United Nations (which cited possible “crimes against humanity”)[27], the human rights group Amnesty International, the U.S. Department of State, as well as Bangladesh and Malaysia, where many Rohingya refugees have arrived.[28] The de facto head of government of Myanmar, Aung San SuuKyi, has been criticized for her inaction on the issue and for doing little to prevent military abuses[29]. She has been stripped of her 1997 Freedom of Oxford award over “inaction” in handling the raging violence. Others argue that since the military retains significant autonomy and power in the government, she may be powerless to control them.[30]

Other forms of sexual violence like street harassment are also prevalent in the camps where the survivors reside now. Young girls are harassed by men and boys in their own community. They cannot even seek help as it defames the girl in the community. Young girls and boys are vulnerable to human trafficking. Domestic violence has been normalized to the point where Rohingya women are expressing relief for being beaten up by their husbands rather than being raped by the Myanmar army. These women whose rights have been trampled upon in their own country are now living in an environment where physical and sexual violence is pervasive. Old

Rohingya women are at high risk of economic deprivation.[31] Women and girls in this current conflict who have been treated for sexual assault are only the tip of the iceberg. We can extrapolate that more than 58,000 women and girls have in fact become victims to this systematic form of assault. Bangladesh Ministry of Health reported that approximately 70,000 of the Rohingya refugees who arrived were pregnant or new mothers[32].

According UNOCHA, there are hundreds of incidents of gender based violence reported every week, and 77 per cent of women and girls across the camps have reported feeling unsafe at some point since arriving.[33]

  1. Securing Women’s Right during this Conflict

4.1 International Response

UNHCR, with their partners, are working with Bangladesh government to respond to the massive humanitarian needs. In the opening months, UNHCR airlifted more than 1,500 metric tons of emergency aid to Bangladesh – including blankets, sheets, mats, tents, kitchen sets, cans and buckets. They are also working with Bangladesh government to improve and create new sites and developing infrastructure for the refugees. Thousands of latrines and water points have been built, mitigating the risks of health problems relating to water. But most importantly, UNHCR and the government is working together to create a mainstream security and identification system to reduce gender based violence and child abuse. UNHCR increased its presence in the field by deploying emergency teams and relief specialists. They have 300 staff in Bangladesh, including 208 national colleagues.

On March 2018, the UN and its partners launched a Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis  calling for US$951 million. As of August 2018, the JRP remains just 32%

funded. UNHCR is appealing for US$238.8 million as part of its Supplementary Appeal for 2018 in order to continue to respond to the needs of refugees.[34]

UNHCR has also equipped more than 80,000 refugee families with upgraded shelter kits. In addition, the Bangladesh government supported by UNHCR and its partners, has added 32 kilometers of brick roads and footpaths, 91 kilometers of drainage pipes, and has constructed 45 kilometers of steps across the settlement. In addition, 63 kilometers of retaining walls and structures; 94 kilometers of drainage have been completed or repaired; 2,324 meters of bridges have been built. UNHCR has also strategically prepositioned 116 storage containers with emergency aid and upgraded 20 community buildings and facilities in the Bangladeshi host communities.

Earlier this month, the government of Canada took a pledge $2.5 million in assistance for Rohingya women and children as part of its new foreign aid budget, which was to be used related to family planning, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, gender-based violence, and maternal and neonatal care, taking into consideration the rights and roles of women[35].

 4.2 Recommendations under International Law to Protect the Rights and Prevent Abuse of Rohingya Women

  1. Members of the Rohingya ethnic group who have fled from Burma to Bangladesh are refugees and should be recognized as such. They are entitled to all rights that attach to refugee status.
  2. Donor governments and intergovernmental organizations should urgently provide generous support to meet the humanitarian needs of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and specific focus should be given to pregnant women and new mothers.
  3. Bangladesh should establish camp based education system for the children, focusing on education and healthcare.
  4. Extensive security measures should be taken to improve the security of the camps, to prevent abuse and crimes related to female refugees.
  5. Ensure that refugee camps are safe for women and girls and do not expose them to further risks of gender-based and sexual violence, including child, early, and forced marriage.[36]
  6. Ensure the quality of services and adherence to health and safety standards, focusing on the sick and elderly women of the camps.

7          Ensure participation of Rohingya women and girls in the process of development and implementation of programs, including sexual and reproductive health services, and set up clear monitoring mechanisms to ensure access to, and quality of, services.

  1. Ensure the availability of sexual and reproductive health services including obstetric, prenatal, and post-natal care; contraceptive information and services, including emergency contraception; and safe abortion services and menstrual regulation, including for victims of rape and sexual violence and married girls.
  2. Special security and care should be given to young Rohingya girls to ensure they are not taken advantage of or being used in human trafficking.


  1. Conclusion

It is an established fact that the Rohingya crisis is a humanitarian crisis on a scale that has never been seen before. Among those affected, half of them are women,[37] who suffered greatly though the whole ordeal. Very specific and strict security measures should be taken to stop the abuse of women and to give healthcare to those already affected. Even in the refugee camps, they are still at risk of being harassed and being abused. Related authorities should take the recommended measures to ensure their safety.

[1]International Committee of The Red Cross, Civilians Protected under International Humanitarian law

(October 29, 2010)  <>  last accessed on 24 September, 2018.

[2] Ibid

[3]Commissioner For Human Rights, Human Rights of Refugee and Migrant women and Girl need to be better proteted, (July 3,2017) <>  last Accessed on September 24, 2018.

[4] Dan CRISTEA, Ștefan-Gheorghe Pentiuc, Scientific Research And Education In The Air  Force-AFASES 2016<>  Accessed on 25 September 2018.

[5] UNHCR: Declaration of emergency status, Rohingya Issue. <>  Last Accessed on September 24, 2018

[6] United Nations, Office on Genocide prevention and The Responsibility To Protect, Ethnic Cleansing <>  Last Accessed on 24 September 2018.

[7] Ibid.

[1] United Nations Office on Genocide prevention and The Responsibility To Protect, Ethnic Cleansing <>  Last Accessed on 24 September 2018.

[8] M. R. Albrozi, Evaluating the effect of international Armed Conflict, The Protection of civilian and Women, Journal of Martinus Nijhoff, Volume XVI, 2006, Pg-248

[9] Cohen, Dara Kay and RagnhildNordås. 2014. “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Introducing the SVAC dataset, Journal of Peace Research, Volume III, 1998-1999 Pg- 418


[10] Additional Protocol (I) to the Geneva Conventions,  ( Entry into Force 12 August 1977) Art 50

[11] Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and relating to the Protection of

Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), (Adopted in 7 June 1977)  Preamble.

[12] Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Geneva, ( Entry into Force 12 August 1949) Art 14

[13]Convention (IV) Ibid, Article 27

[14] The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)  (Adopted in 1979) Art 6

[15] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948 UNGA Res 217 A(III) (UDHR) art 5

[16] Article 2, Ibid

[17] Article 3, Ibid

[18] Article 5, Ibid

[19] Article 6, Ibid

[20] Article 7, Ibid

[21] Article 9, Ibid

[22] Article 15, Ibid

[23] M. R. Albrozi, Evaluating the Effectiveness of international Refugee Law: The Protection of Refugees, 1st Edition, Martinus Nijhoff Publication, 2006, Pg-188

[24] Independent, Rohingya Crisis: Muslim women Reveal Rape and Torture Inflicted by Burma Military Forces, 11 December 2017 <>  Last Accessed on 25 September 2018

[25] Francesca Da Ros, The List of Members can be found at UNHCR, ExCom Members and How to Apply, <> accessed on  24 September 2018

[26] UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, 3 April 2018 <>  Last Accessed on 25 September 2018.

[27] Elizabeth Rushing, The on International Displacement, <> accessed on  25 September 2018

[28] UNGA: Seventy-first session A/RES/71/310

[29] UN Assembly report, A/71/1016 –S/2017/556

[30] The Daily Star, The Uncertain Fate of Rohingya Women, (15 January 2018) <>  Accessed on 25 September 2018.

[31] Broad Agenda Blog, The unconscionable Truth: Rohingya Women Are Being Used as Weapons of War. <> Last Accessed on 25 September 2018

[32]Independent, We Still aren’t doing enough to tackle gender-based violence against Rohingya Women and Children, (26 August 2018)<>  Last Accessed on 25 September 2018.

[33] UNHCR, The UN refugee agency, UN launches 2018 appeal for Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi host communities: Joint press release by UNHCR and IOM. <>  Last accessed on 26 September 2018.

[34]United Nations, Council on Foreign Relations: Women and Girls are at Risk in The Rohingya Refugee Crisis( 17 September 2017) <>  Last Accessed on 25 September 2018.

[35] Federation of Medical Women  of Canada, <>  Last Accessed on 25 September 2018.

[37] UN Women, Gender brief on Rohingya Refugee Crisis Response in Bangladesh (October 2017) <>  Last accessed on 26 September 2018


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Sadek Hossain Mamun aand Yasir Arafat Rabby

The authors are currently pursuing their LLB in Northern University Bangladesh.

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