Past horrors transformed into future aspirations
* Some names have been changed or shortened to protect the privacy of individuals.
Dozens of women and girls being “raped and slaughtered” by the military in Buthidaung Township, Rakhine State.
That is Begum’s* last memory of her village in Myanmar. Fearing for her life, she decided to leave the only place and people she knew, for a shot at a future in a foreign land among strangers.
“No worst horrors I have witnessed in my life than these,” Begum recalls. “I fled the country to look for a safe haven. I set off for Malaysia in 2016.”
At eighteen years old, barely an adult, she was confronted with decisions that would alter the course of her life.
Begum would become one of more than half a million Rohingya forced to abandon their homes in 2016 after what several reports have called the ethnic cleansing, or genocide, of Rohingya Muslims. Hundreds of stories of gang rape, torture and murder have emerged from Rakhine state in northern Myanmar, of which the armed forces have denied any responsibility.
Like many who escaped, Begum ended up first in neighbouring Bangladesh, eventually making her way by boat to Malaysia via Thailand. She says that she stayed on the vessel that carried about 900 people for four months, “crying all the time.”
Begum had narrowly escaped the horrors she saw in Myanmar, but she found herself unable to run from the violence that her smugglers would inflict on her and other women.
She shares her harrowing tale: “They [the smugglers] used to abduct women at night and molest them...We were also harassed. We tried to protect ourselves, unfortunately, we were still raped...We had to obey them even if we didn’t want to...We could only save our lives.”
The Rohingya men on board were not spared the mistreatment, says Begum. “Men were physically abused even when they asked for water to drink. They were not allowed to go to the toilet,” she describes. “We were only given salty water [sea water] to drink. People had diseases like diarrhoea. I saw many men die and their bodies thrown into the sea.”
Crafting a life from scratch
Today, Begum has started to rebuild her life in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, a world away from the horrors she saw.
Doing so is not easy. Malaysia has welcomed refugees and asylum seekers from various countries, including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan. As of May 2019, nearly 173,800 have registered with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) in Malaysia. But they have little rights, including the right to work.
It was through the Rohingya Women Development Network (RWDN) that Begum found the tools to help her re-establish her life.
Started in 2016, RWDN is Malaysia’s first women-led group to give Rohingya women refugees a platform to empower themselves and to speak up for their rights.
Founder Sharifah Shakirah, herself a Rohingya refugee, says, “Our women have started coming to Malaysia by being trafficked [sic], and they were abused; they were raped, they were tortured, they were detained.
“RWDN provides a safe space for our women, where they can talk about their problems, share their feelings...solve them together.
“RWDN is trying to educate our people why it’s important for women to come out of the house, get an education, work and contribute to their family in a society.”
The group provides skills training so that the women can develop a trade and earn an income, and aims to tackle the social problems inherent in the Rohingya community, like child marriage and domestic violence. “They’re (the women) changing not only themselves, but also people around them, especially their children,” Sharifah says.
Sharifah first arrived in the Southeast Asian country 20 years ago. Without any legal documents she was smuggled from Myanmar via Thailand and reunited with her father and siblings in Kuala Lumpur.
Despite facing discrimination much of her life from locals and her own community, the outspoken 25-year-old has made it her purpose to advocate for the rights of the Rohingya, especially for women and girls.
“Many people think we are economic migrants. But we are not. We are refugees, we have been fleeing our country to save our lives.”
UNHCR defines refugees as those who have “fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and crossed an international border to find safety in another country.”
Sharifah was recognised for her activism this year, becoming the first non-Malaysian to be nominated for the International Women of Courage Award by the US State Department.
The right to hope
Begum has benefitted from attending RWDN’s livelihood classes. She now earns an income by selling earrings she designs and makes, which are sold on RWDN’s website.
The earrings cost US$29 online, with 50 per cent going to the Rohingya women who make the accessories.
“I’m earning about RM500 (US$120) to RM600 (US$144) a month [from selling earrings]. I am also able to teach my skills to other women,” says Begum with a sense of pride.
Even her husband supports her efforts, a rare occurrence in Rohingya society that remains conservative and patriarchal.
Mohammad* says, “I am proud of my wife’s skills. With her money she can pay for our children’s education...My parents are in a Bangladesh refugee camp, they are suffering over there, so I need to send money for them too. My wife’s income is helpful for us...We are happy and at peace.”
With two daughters, one newly born in May 2019, Begum hopes the Malaysian government will eventually accord refugees some basic human rights.
“So that we can provide education to our children, our husbands are allowed to work, [and] we have access to proper clinics and hospitals for medical treatment,” she explains.
In the meantime, Rohingya women like herself, who are otherwise confined to their homes, unseen and unheard, have found an avenue through RWDN to socialise and to educate themselves. They learn to speak English, study the Quran and discover their rights.
“It’s for the betterment of myself. If I become educated, I can teach other people. I can help other people,” says Begum. “So that we can prevent ourselves from being helpless, we can improve ourselves and don’t need to be afraid.”
But more than herself, she wants her daughters to have the best opportunities to live their full potential.
“If our girls and women are uneducated and unable to contribute along with the men, the atrocities that we are facing will not end,” says Begum.
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