Help save Rohingya women and girls: A plea to our donors, a plea to our world

by Natalia Kanem | @atayeshe | United Nations Population Fund
Friday, 20 October 2017 10:31 GMT

Rohingya refugees queue in the rain to receive food at Kotupalang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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Well over half of Rohingya refugees are women and girls, many of whom report surviving sexual violence in their villages or during their journey

When Shakila* arrived at a UNFPA Women Friendly Space in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, she was exhausted and traumatized. Having fled the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the 36-year-old Rohingya refugee needed urgent treatment for the sexual violence she had suffered, exacerbated by the harrowing journey by foot over treacherous terrain. UNFPA-trained personnel tended to her physical wounds, but the emotional scars from seeing her husband and baby girl killed in front of her will be harder to heal.

Shakila’s is one of thousands of horrific stories emerging from the world’s fastest-growing humanitarian crisis. Almost 600,000 Rohingya refugees have poured into Bangladesh in less than two months, one of the largest such displacements of people in recorded history.

Well over half of the refugees are women and girls, many of whom report surviving sexual violence in their villages or during their journey. Of the almost 10,000 women and girls who have accessed our Women Friendly Spaces so far, some 800 have received specialized care and support for gender-based violence.  But for every survivor who seeks help, there are many more who will not come forward - out of shame, fear of reprisal, or both.

UNFPA’s nine Women Friendly Spaces, with a further six more planned, and 5 mobile health clinics conducted daily prioritize the urgent needs of women and girls, including sexual and reproductive health.

Women do not stop giving birth during humanitarian crises. Many refugees are delivering their babies while on the run, often arriving at our facilities in a desperate state. UNFPA does what it can to save every mother and newborn’s life through emergency obstetric care and expansion of maternal health services.

Our 34 midwives in Cox’s Bazar - with 30 more soon to be deployed - have screened 57,000 new arrivals, provided antenatal care to almost 12,000 pregnant women, postnatal care to 1000 women, conducted around 300 deliveries, and referred more than 70 emergency obstetric cases to higher-level facilities.

UNFPA has also distributed more than 6000 Dignity Kits with essential hygiene supplies, clean clothes and protective materials to help ensure recipients’ safety and dignity, enabling them to move about in public and thus more easily access vital aid, including food and water.   

But even all of this is nowhere near enough. Supply simply cannot match demand.  We must do much, much more. That’s why the urgent needs of women and girls must also be prioritized in Geneva on October 23, where a multi-country ministerial-level pledging conference with donor governments and the United Nations will seek to raise the necessary funding to match the sustainable humanitarian response required. The plan calls for US$434 million to meet the lifesaving needs of all Rohingya refugees and their host communities – an estimated 1.2 million people in total – in the months ahead.

We appeal to all current and potential donor governments and institutions to respond swiftly to help us and our humanitarian partners scale up our response to save lives and restore dignity to the hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings -- including vulnerable women and girls -- trapped in a protracted situation none of us would ever wish for our loved ones, or ourselves.  

* Names have been changed

Dr Natalia Kanem is the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)