Women’s Woes: Surviving daily life inside a refugee camp
A woman sits inside a makeshift tent in Unchiprang Camp, Bangladesh. More than half of the people who fled and crossed over to Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar are women. Photo credit: Genevive Estacaan/Oxfam
Unchiprang Camp, 17 October — The lush green fields open up to a hillside stripped bare to accommodate a tent city now home to more than 29,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled over to Bangladesh in a fresh wave of influx which started on August 25. Every day, numbers are increasing as new arrivals join the already overburdened camp with depleting resources.
It was more than a month ago when Sumayrha, 40, arrived in Unchiprang. She said she was fortunate to endure the perilous journey across the border, and passing through forests, paddy field, deep-mud and creeks into Bangladesh on foot. As far as she knows, her entire village was burned to the ground leaving nothing out of her poor town in neighboring Myanmar.
Now, Sumayrha’s family lives in a flimsy tent made of bamboo poles, tattered tarpaulins, and thin plastic sheets, while the floor is covered with clay already dampened by the monsoon rain.
“We walked for five days before reaching Bangladesh. My three young children were with me, while my husband and other children were separated from us and ran with our neighbors. It took us two weeks to be reunited here in Unchiprang,” Sumayrha tells me while she nursed her one-year-old son. Her other children were sitting on the floor, half-naked and hungry.
For more than a month now, the family has relied solely on food rations. “We eat boiled rice once a day, and nothing else,” she shares.
But there are days when Sumayrha admitted she loses her appetite. Sometimes, the stench of human feces from a nearby latrine reaches her tent and fills the whole house. Pre-existing facilities such as toilets and water sources have been overused as new arrivals of refugees erect new makeshift tents in already overcrowded camps. But this has taken a toll on people’s health. Already, Sumayrha and her children have suffered diarrhea, while her husband is confined in a field hospital undergoing treatment for tuberculosis.
“We get drinking water from the well and the water tanks. But we cannot take a bath regularly because there is just not enough water. What’s left is unclean and unsuitable for anybody to bathe in. I have been here for one and a half months now, but I have only taken a bath twice since I have arrived.”
To survive, Sumayrha and the others rely on old water wells and few newly constructed hand pumps and water tanks barely enough to support an estimated half of the newly arrived refugees who still have no access to safe water. But it is most difficult for her and her teenage daughters when they have their menstrual period.
“My daughters and I use old clothe to wipe off our menstrual blood because we do not have menstrual napkins. But we are embarrassed to wash them at the well so we keep the stained clothe and put them in a bucket and stays there while we wait for the rain. Sometimes, we wake up very early in the morning and wash while no else is using the well.”
By the end of October, there are an estimated 1.2 million total number people from the Rohingya refugees and members of host communities who will need emergency support. Of this, 53% are female, and 58% are under the age of 18; while 10% are either pregnant or lactating mothers who are most vulnerable and have more specific needs.
Asmira, 24, is Sumayrha’s village sister. She is expecting her third child and is due to give birth in November. While fleeing, she took her two young children, one clung to her waist while the other held on to her shoulders. Her husband was separated from them as they journeyed. She later found out that her husband was seeking for his seventy-year-old mother looking for her from one camp to another. This left her worried, but she said living closely with Sumayrha has helped her cope with her situation. “I never leave the tent without her.”
Asmira, like the others, fled empty-handed. “I am worried because I will be giving birth soon. I need things for my baby: water, clothes, and medical treatment. I have no other relatives to help us,” she shares as tears welled up in her eyes. There are around 24,000 pregnant women refugees who need constant and delicate maternity care, something that seems impossible at a time when everyone is struggling for survival.
“When the sun is up it becomes too hot inside the tent. We had to endure the heat because we have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. But when it rains, it is too cold inside and water seeps through the plastic sheets. Our floor turns muddy, and we can do is to spread our mats for cover. We have no other choice.”
As the influx grows, so do the needs. Women, girls, and nursing mothers are particularly vulnerable and need to be protected. Their privacy, health and hygiene needs must be met, and measures must be taken to prevent any form of sexual violence.
Story written by: Genevive Estacaan, Oxfam Asia Response Team