The massive flight of Myanmar’s long-oppressed Rohingya ethnic group is following a sickening pattern of other recent displacements of populations – the Yazidis in Iraq, Syrians by the millions fleeing civil war, schoolchildren targeted by Nigeria’s Boko Haram terrorist group – where the horrendous human rights violations suffered by those targeted are only magnified for that population’s women and girls.
The United Nations has deemed the systematic repression and displacement of more than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya – Muslims living without even basic rights in a majority-Buddhist country – a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed on to that designation, with senior State Department officials saying that the determination by the US of “ethnic cleansing” is meant to “express our sense of urgency about the situation.”
The designation aims to “put pressure on the military in Burma,” another name for Myanmar, “to act quickly” to secure conditions in Rakhine state, where the Rohingya live, and to make their repatriation possible, the officials said.
The vast majority of the displaced Rohingya have fled to sprawling camps in neighboring Bangladesh. On Thursday, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh announced reaching an “arrangement” to begin a repatriation process within two months. But no details were given, and human rights advocates – noting that Rohingya continue to arrive in large numbers each day at the camps – cautioned that no returns could begin until security conditions are verifiably established in Rakhine.
The US is also warning that it could still move to impose “targeted sanctions” against perpetrators of what it says was the “organized, planned, and systematic” violence against Rohingya villages last August that set off the mass displacement.
Myanmar’s security forces undertook what they called “clearance operations” after a Rohingya extremist group launched coordinated attacks against dozens of police and military posts.
But as bad as conditions are for the Rohingya generally, the population’s women and girls face the additional terror of widespread sexual assault – with the UN recently concluding that nearly every one of the hundreds of thousands of females fleeing Myanmar, mostly to neighboring Bangladesh, has survived or witnessed some form of sexual assault, including rape and gang rape.
In addition, thousands of the displaced women are pregnant and face the prospect of giving birth in life-threatening conditions, while many have had to endure seeing their husbands and older sons killed.
Now some UN officials and human rights experts are asserting that the horrendous conditions Rohingya women and girls face are being exacerbated by cuts in US funding for UN programs that provide women-specific services to displaced populations.
“We’re barred from getting any money from the US government, and that is having a significant impact,” says Ugochi Daniels, chief of humanitarian response at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). The withdrawal of what before this year was UNFPA’s number-one funding source “means that women and girls are not getting the services they require” in the high-risk environment they face fleeing Myanmar, she says.
Moreover, the absence of the US as a dogged advocate and provider for women and girls in a humanitarian crisis like that of the Rohingya means that the specific abuses women and girls face, like gender-based violence, do not get the same global attention they do when the US exercises its moral authority as leader of the international community, Ms. Daniels says.
Women and girls are “falling further in prioritization when the political voice of the United States is no longer there,” she says.
US officials reject the notion of waning US leadership on issues like the Rohingya. Secretary Tillerson underscored the urgency of addressing the Rohingya situation by adding a stop in Myanmar last week to an already long Asia trip, officials note. Tillerson deemed the violence the Rohingya have been subjected to “horrific,” and announced a boost in US humanitarian aid for the displaced population to $87 million.
But none of the State Department’s recent statements on the Rohingya crisis or its explanation of the designation of “ethnic cleansing” included any special mention of the extremely high incidence of sexual violence, including the systematic use of gang rape – which Human Rights Watch recently cited as a tool being used to commit ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.
UN officials and some human rights activists cite the Trump administration’s withdrawal this year of $32 million in funding for UNFPA, the UN’s family planning agency, as evidence of the US turning away from issues facing women and girls in humanitarian crises.
The State Department says the cut in funding was based on a directive signed by President Trump in January banning funding for international organizations or nongovernmental groups that provide abortion services or advice that includes abortion as an option. UNFPA said at the time that it does not provide abortion services, but the State Department said that UNFPA provides family-planning services in China, a country that does resort to coercive abortions.
UNFPA officials say the US aid cut is trickling down to affect Rohingya women and girls because the agency is a lead provider of services to displaced populations.
“We estimate there are more than 190,000 women and girls [in the camps] who increasingly are encountering a lack of access to gender-based services,” says Bernard Coquelin, UNFPA’s humanitarian lead in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where he was reached in a call arranged by the UN Foundation in Washington.
The agency has so far deployed 42 midwives who have delivered more than 400 babies, says Mr. Coquelin. And it has set up “safe places” for women and girls in the teeming camps and distributed more than 6,000 “dignity kits” for women that include soap, toothpaste, sanitary napkins, and a flashlight.
But Coquelin says the staggering number of victims of sexual violence has overwhelmed the agency’s ability to provide medical and counseling services. The agency estimates there are 87,000 pregnant and lactating women in the displaced population, requiring services ranging from prenatal obstetrics to post-birth care and counseling.
“It’s a process that takes a lot of time, for women who have experienced and seen what they’ve seen to regain their confidence” and eventually think about going back to their homes, he says. “But right now it’s taking a lot of time to get access to these services.”
Some human rights experts who have visited the camps of displaced Rohingya say that clearly the rapid displacement of so many women and girls is a key reason they are not getting the services they need.
“No, I would not say their specific needs are being met, and part of that is the sheer scale of this displacement,” says Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International in Washington. “This is the most rapid scale we’ve seen since perhaps Kosovo” in 1998, he says.
But the other key factor in the unmet needs of women and girls “is certainly the staggering extent of the sexual violence they experienced and witnessed,” he says.
Mr. Sullivan, who visited the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh in May (when the numbers were much smaller) and then again in September, says he would not be able to tie the dearth of services for Rohingya women and girls to cuts in US funding, “although it makes sense to me,” he adds.
But on the other hand, he does say that a retreat by the US on human-rights issues has had a noticeable impact on the ground in crises like that of the Rohingya.
“The US voice has been missing under this administration, and humanitarian experts on the ground are very much aware – and the people affected by these crises are very much aware – of a vacuum left by the loss of this voice,” he says. “This missing strong leadership is having a broad impact, including on an issue like women and girls.”