“I give it to my husband when I get the salary, and he lets me spend it if I need something for myself,” said Somaiya Yasmin (pseudonym), a working Rohingya woman.
What do we see when we hear the word Rohingya Women? Would it be the face of a woman wearing a Burqa and veil, carrying a baby, whose eyes are pleading for help?
When it comes to Rohingya women, we always picture women from a traditional community where they are oppressed, abused, and confined into the four walls that they call home. Oftentimes adhering to our preconceived ideas, we miss noticing the little steps forward that these women take towards their betterment.
Community mindset on arrival
“We came here to the Rohingya camp to work as para counsellors after the influx of 2017. During that time our (women’s) presence was not welcomed by the people of the Rohingya community. They used to assume that we are bad women and even though we could not understand their language at that time, we could understand from their way of expression, posture-gesture and tone that they were calling us something profane,” said Munni Akter, para counsellor of BRAC Humanitarian Play Lab.
Their traditional mindset and their constant exigency of hiding women from the gaze of the Myanmar army are the impetus for their notion that an outgoing woman must be an unprincipled person.
Although there is no barrier for the Rohingya women to go in the sight of other Rohingya men and show their faces to them, they were not allowed to, nor did they want to go in the sight of the men who are working in the humanitarian sectors of the Rohingya camp.
Jafor Islam (pseudonym used for professional cause), a manager of central BRAC Humanitarian Play Lab, mentioned, “Initially when we were looking for Rohingya women to recruit as play leaders, their response was almost nil. We have even witnessed cases where after doing the job for 1 or 2 days, play leaders stopped coming to work as their families and community leaders were not allowing them to work alongside men ''.
Women in the working sphere
However, in the end, with constant persuasion and assurance of mostly working with children, successfully employed the Rohingiya Women as Play leaders. Nowadays, the number of job opportunities for Rohingya women is expanding. Rohingya women with work experience are joining other job opportunities with higher pay scales.
“ I have seen many Play leaders and Mother Volunteers who have joined other organizations with higher pay scales after gathering experience from here,” said Faruk Ahmed (pseudonym), another BRAC official from the BRAC Humanitarian Play lab.
At present, Rohingya women are working in different designations of several organisations. Their parents, husbands and other family members are not only encouraging them but also helping them with household chores so that it becomes easier for them to balance their personal and work life.
“When I go to work, my husband takes care of the children. He bathes them, feeds them and plays with them. Therefore, I do not face any difficulties to balance my personal and work life,” said Fatima, who is working as a Mother Volunteer in BRAC Humanitarian Play lab.
With every passing day, Rohingya families are becoming more and more supportive of the work of Rohingya women as additional income in the household is always welcomed, especially when it can contribute to the protein supply for the family.
Although Rohingya families get rations of dry foods such as rice, flour, oil, salt, sugar etc. they have to buy fish, meat and eggs which are vital sources of protein supply.
Apart from fulfilling the need for protein, Rohingya families also save this additional money by buying gold jewellery that they can carry with them if they have to shift anywhere from here.
“Why would my husband forbid me to work, when my earnings are supporting my family financially,” said Huzina, another Mother Volunteer in BRAC Humanitarian play lab.
Despite these small steps toward economic empowerment, Rohingya women still struggle to gain autonomy in the decision-making space, and Rohingya women’s participation is sparse to witness.
They do not have the authority to make decisions or even fight for their ground. Although they are contributing financially and the community is showing respect to them for that, there is no seat for them at the table of making decisions.
Despite working hard to earn for their families, learning and adapting to new circumstances, they are not allowed to express their wish to keep working, if the head (father and husband) of the family stands against it.
“If my husband forbids me from going to work from tomorrow, I can utmostly remind him of the benefits we are having due to my work. If I tell him that I want to keep working, he might beat me to death,” said Mrs Yasmin.
According to the study Decision Making as a Contributor for Women Empowerment: A Study in the Indian Context, education makes women aware of their rights, creates pathways to earn financially, and makes them empowered.
These empowered women who are aware of their rights, and financially independent make decisions for their betterment with their wise judgment. Thus, equal participation in the work sphere and financial contributions are essential parts of moving forward, and without education and awareness of one's rights, it is abridged.
After all the effort and advocacy, Rohingya women are finally getting some economic power, and we have to keep trying as a community to let these women know their rights and overcome the trauma of the ethnic cleansing so that they get the courage to take control of their own lives.
The writer is a Research Assistant at BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University.