Burning Hearts, Breaking Silence
“I entered Bangladesh 3 times as a refugee. In 1988 with my refugee parents, in 1992 with my husband, and in 2017 without my husband.” shares 61 years old Hamida, whose husband was forcibly separated from her; captured and tortured by the Myanmar military during the clearance operations in 2017. “Every time I went back to Myanmar, they threw me out. This time I am determined to ensure I can go back for good, with justice and full rights.” Hamida is one of the leaders of “Shanti Mohila” (Peace Women) in the Rohingya refugee camp situated in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Even while carrying reminders of the horrific violence, especially the sexual and gender- based violence (SGBV) inflicted on them, this group of Rohingya women are leading the fight for justice and accountability in one of the most protracted crises of the world.
Over five decades of persecution faced by the Rohingya community in Myanmar has been marked by gross human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary executions and unlawful killings, torture, and the widespread destruction of property by members of the Myanmar military. The 2017 ‘clearance operations’ led to the largest displacement of Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh to date. Since then, the lives of nearly a million refugees, who still live in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, remain in limbo.
Amidst the unimaginable challenges they have and continue to face, Rohingya women have emerged as leaders in their community, using their voice and agency to demand justice and change.
Shanti Mohila, was founded in 2017 by a group of Rohingya women working to raise awareness of human rights abuses in Myanmar and advocating for international justice for the Rohingya people. Hamida recalls the beginning: “We would go to the houses of women who have survived SGBV and lost families to share their grief. We comforted each other [in order] to get back to regular life.” Women who lost everything found strength in one another. From a group of 5, Shanti Mohila increased to a support network of 400 women. “We go door-to-door to help our girls, inform about topics ranging from the disadvantages of early marriage to how to cope with mental distress and trauma.” The community-based counselling and knowledge-sharing made these women aware of their rights and the possibility of raising their voices. In Hamida’s words – “many of our girls are not even educated but the one thing they know is justice.” In the patriarchal Rohingya culture, men generally, are not supportive of women forming their own social gatherings and meetings. Many of these sessions took place in hiding until the group boldly decided to come out into the open. “We have suffered too much to let traditional gender norm put out the fire in our burning hearts.”
Cox’s Bazar to the Hague
In May 2018, Shanti Mohila openly asked for justice – by submitting 400 thumbprints from Rohingya women and girls as a victims’ submission to the International Criminal Court (ICC) requesting a criminal investigation into the Myanmar military’s atrocities against the Rohingya.
As the proceedings continue, Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) has been supporting Rohingya women, including many members of Shanti Mohila Mohila to strengthen their capacity to contribute to international justice and accountability efforts and support their advocacy. A ground-breaking step to place the survivors at the heart of the legal processes was in supporting three Rohingya survivors, in December 2019, to travel from the camps in Bangladesh to the Hague to attend the hearings before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the case between The Gambia and Myanmar on the application of the Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Earlier on 11 November 2019, The Gambia filed an application at the ICJ, arguing that Myanmar failed to comply with its obligations under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the ‘Genocide Convention’), specifically the duty to prevent genocide. Hamida was one of these three who visited the Hague to attend a hearing in this case.
Currently, LAW represents over 500 Rohingya, supporting their meaningful participation in the ongoing international justice processes pertaining to their treatment in Myanmar including at International Court of Justice (ICJ), ICC, and at the foreign domestic courts such as in Argentina based on universal jurisdiction principle. LAW’s Rohingya Crisis Programme in Bangladesh also provides ongoing training to 71 Rohingya (45 women and 26 men) to act as a network of Survivor Advocates. This peer-support network assists others in the community, particularly those who have suffered from sexual and gender-based violence before fleeing Myanmar.
Despite all social barriers, Hamida has continued her promise to obtain justice. Making history, she spoke in front of the Human Rights Council in Geneva as the first Rohingya women who was directly impacted the Rohingya clearance operation. “They said women cannot do anything, but my faith took me to the Hague. People started accepting us, and we can now reach more women who needed our support,” Hamida describes the wide recognition and the turning point of her activism, “Even the Imams and Majhis (male community leaders) started respecting me and paying attention to our work.”
One of the key factors in Shanti Mohila’s success is its all-female leadership. Hamida along with other members help enable an environment where women can support women in navigating the hurdles of refugee life. “There are many women who lost their hearing, sight, or mobility due to the violence faced. We become ears for them, families to them,” Hamida shared the key driving force of the group. Their discussions are centered around the prevention of human-trafficking, domestic violence; and promoting the need for female education. Through LAW’s support, they also update the community on the status of the legal proceedings around the Rohingya crisis in the international justice arena.
LAW’s Survivor Advocate, 30-year-old Sareka, who is also a member of Shanti Mohila, echoes Hamida’s hopes: “When we discuss the legal updates related to the Rohingya crisis, our crisis, we share hope among ourselves. Myanmar militaries have targeted Rohingya women to break our morals, but we have not given up. Now, justice should ensure we return to our country, stronger, and with full skills and capacity, so that we are not exposed to more vulnerability. I don’t know if there is light at the end of the tunnel, but now I at least know that the tunnel exists.”
Shared Pain, Shared Hopes: The Battle Continues
Women’s leadership is crucial for the Rohingya community to obtain justice seeing as women and girls are often disproportionately affected by conflict, displacement and are more likely to experience gender-based violence. By centering the voices of women and advocating for their rights, Shanti Mohila is addressing these critical issues and working to ensure justice that will protect these women permanently.
As the proceedings before the ICJ await a formal response from Myanmar that is due in April 2023, Hamida remains optimistic, “I believe in Legal Action Worldwide, I believe in the ICJ. Once it was impossible for me to even imagine working outside as a woman, and a refugee, let alone be one of those leading a movement. Now that we know our voices are heard, I hope justice will prevail. Our women turned their rage and sufferings into meaningful work. This cannot go into waste.”
From the merely 10-by-10-foot crammed shelter houses in the camps, with barely any connection with the outer world in the already inhumane living conditions, women like Hamida have become “Champions of Justice”, and the younger generation of women are following in their footsteps, believing that one day they can have a say in their own future. In the long-held strategy of regimes, to target the women with the most extreme violence, Shanti Mohila’s revolution is a torchbearer in the battle of justice, testament to the power of female leadership.
On this International Women’s Day, we must recognize and celebrate the incredible leadership of women like Shanti Mohila. But more importantly, progress must be seen before the next International Women’s Day in 2024. Hamida’s words are a reminder of the constant harsh battle fought by Rohingya women, “We definitely feel tired, weighed under the flashbacks of Myanmar, but we continue our presence so that the Rohingyas are not forgotten.” The world must not fail these women.
Text and photos: Ayesha Nawshin/ LAW.
* LAW assisted in the writing process of this article, and the inputs used here are purely from members of Shanti Mohila (Peace Women’) based in camps in Cox’s Bazar.