Marie Sophie Pettersson is Humanitarian Action and Resilience Building Programme Specialist with UN Women, currently working in Myanmar. She visited Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, from October-December 2017 to support UN Women’s engagement in the Rohingya Refugee Crisis Response and reflected on her visit.
The absence of women was the first thing I noticed when I entered the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. It was a late October morning, but unbearably hot. There were 10 camps, hosting over 800,000 people. I could see men and children everywhere, receiving relief items from the humanitarian actors, selling snacks and goods, fetching water and firewood… men praying in the mosques and children attending classes in the temporary learning centres. But where were the women?
Crisis situations often impact women and girls more, and differently than men and boys because the existing gender inequalities are compounded. The Rohingya crisis is not any different. In fact, going into the camps for the first time, I already knew the crisis had a distinctly gendered face because of the high levels of sexual violence and stark gender segregation that Rohingya women and girls have experienced. So where were the women?
Upon a closer look, I finally spotted them—silhouettes inside the tents, few faces peeking out as we walked past. The Rohingya women and girls often live under restrictive socio-cultural norms. The violence they have experienced and witnessed in Myanmar has made their movements even more restrictive. They are also at risk of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse within the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. While the men showed up for meetings and distribution of relief items, were consulted about their needs, and had a say in decisions being made within the camps, the women were mostly sidelined. They had limited access to information, livelihood options, community activities and decision-making. They even lacked adequate sanitation facilities.
As of January 2018, UN Women has set up the first Multi-Purpose Women Centre in the Bhalukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, in partnership with Action Aid and with support from UN Women National Committee Australia. The Centre provides a safe space for Rohingya women and adolescent girls, where they can build a social network, access information and referral services for gender-based violence, and seek psycho-social counselling. The centre also offers skills training in literacy, livelihood options, leadership and disaster preparedness, and raises awareness about gender issues and risks. Plans are underway to build additional Multi-Purpose Women Centres, and to engage Rohingya refugee women leaders from the older registered camps and Bangladeshi women from the host communities to provide skills training and mentoring to the newly arrived Rohingya women refugees and form joint support groups to build peace and cohesion.
Martha Alicia Benavente is a mother of four children whom she raised alone after her husband passed away. She has recently graduated as a solar engineer from the Barefoot College in India, through the UN Joint Programme on Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women implemented by FAO, WFP, IFAD and UN Women in Guatemala, and funded by the Governments of Norway and Sweden. Her story relates to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7, on access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all; as well as SDG 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment and SDG 8, which promotes decent work and sustainable economic empowerment for all.
Martha Benavente, from Tucurú, a small municipality in Guatemala, trained for six months to become a solar engineer and she is bursting with energy. She can’t wait to start building solar lamps so that her community can have sustainable energy at last. One solar lamp could sell for up to 200 Quetzales, a lucrative business opportunity for a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field.
“The six months I spent in India at the Barefoot College were also not easy. I got sick, and sometimes wondered if it was better to remain a domestic worker. But little by little, I learned everything. I learned how to make solar lamps.
Right now, the biggest challenge is how to put into practice what I learned in India and to train more women. There are many mothers here who want to learn and who can benefit…I just need the materials to build lamps.
“My dream is that my community benefits from solar energy. I made a very big effort to go to India, not only for me, but for the whole community. People come up to me and say, we are so happy that you’re back. Now we will have light!”
Colombia’s half-a-century-long armed conflict has deeply wounded the country’s rural areas. Today, rural and indigenous women suffer the highest levels of poverty, social exclusion and discrimination. According to national statistics, 41.9 percent of rural women-led households live in poverty and 9.6 percent in extreme poverty. An initiative by UN Women has supported rural and indigenous women to develop leadership and business skills to boost their economic and political empowerment as the country strives for peace.
Mercedes Ruiz, a petite coffee planter, is one of them. Last year, she and 600 other indigenous and rural women from the municipality, also coffee planters, founded the Association of Rural Women Almaguereñas (AMURA), with the support of UN Women. The women have been coffee growers for generations, but had limited knowledge of how to market their product. They also lacked decision-making powers within the family and in the coffee trade.
"We decided to organize because our voices were not being taken into account," explains Ruiz. When the women started to organize, at first their families were opposed to the idea of a women’s association. “They said I left the family too often [to meetings] and neglected my duties at home,” Ruiz recalls. However, the women felt determined to improve their social and economic situation.
“Our idea is to strengthen existing proposals of women’s organizations," explains Andrea Villareal from UN Women. “The leadership programme aims not only at improving women's access to economic resources, it empowers women so they can influence the economic and political decisions that affect their lives and make sure their contributions to the economy of the region are valued.”
The trainings supported by UN Women also engaged male local leaders and family members of the participants to raise their awareness on women’s rights, combating violence against women and redistributing women’s unpaid care work. Together, women and men learned about the benefits of women’s economic empowerment and about transforming gender roles and cultural practices that hold women back. "The participation of men has been very useful. It helped us raise a collective awareness about women’s rights,” explains Olga Truque, project coordinator of FUNDECIMA.