Sexism, Racism, Poor Education Condemn Rohingya Women

A displaced Rohingya woman sits with her child outside a temporary camp in Pauktaw Township, Arakan State. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

A displaced Rohingya woman sits with her child outside a temporary camp in Pauktaw Township, Arakan State. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

THET KE PYIN, Burma — When I first met Roma Hattu, a stateless Rohingya Muslim, in April 2013, she was rolling on the dirty concrete floor of an abandoned building in western Burma, heavily pregnant and in excruciating pain.

She had taken shelter in the building after Buddhist-Muslim riots in June 2012 had forced her family, like tens of thousands of other Rohingya, to leave their homes in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, and move to squalid displacement camps.

A month ago, when I returned to Sittwe, I tracked down Hattu, now 31, to see how she was faring two years after the riots.

I found her in a dark, dingy room at the end of a long dormitory, eight months pregnant—her fourth pregnancy—and once again in pain.

“My heart beats too fast and I feel dizzy. I can’t sleep and I can’t eat,” she said, as her year-old son, whose birth we had assisted by sending the cash-strapped mother to hospital in our car, slept soundly next to her on the bamboo floor.

Money is a big worry for Hattu’s family. Her husband, Kalia, is a traditional masseur. Before the riots, he used to earn around $10 a day. Now he’s lucky to bring home $1 to $2. They lost their home and belongings during the riots and his job soon afterward, when Muslims were barred from Sittwe.

“I told my husband I don’t want more kids but he wouldn’t listen,” she said.

My translator, a young Rohingya man, stopped translating. After repeated urging, he haltingly repeated what Hattu had said—her husband insists on sleeping with her and she could not say no, especially as she was the second wife.

Hattu is uneducated and, like many other Rohingya women, does not understand the concept of family planning.

The combination of poverty, pregnancy and pain that many Rohingya women endure is due to a potent combination of hostility from Buddhist Arakanese, the extreme conservatism of the Rohingya themselves and the low level of female education—the result partly of state policies and partly tradition.

I’ve interviewed dozens of Rohingya women over the years, many of them struggling to look after large families or cope with pregnancy. Some had been abandoned by their husbands, either for a second wife from the same village or when they moved abroad to find work, as many Rohingya men do.

Large Muslim Families

Nationalists among Burma’s majority Buddhists often point to the large families of Muslims, especially the Rohingya, to justify the religious violence that has claimed at least 240 lives and uprooted over 150,000 people, mainly Muslims, since June 2012.

They say the large families are part of a Muslim drive to take over Burma—though Muslims make up only an estimated 4 percent of the 60 million population.

Perversely, the aid agencies that could have promoted family planning, like  Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland (MSF), have been expelled from Arakan State after being accused of favoritism toward the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Burma despite living there for generations.

Rights groups say the Rohingya face a litany of persecution and discrimination, from forced labor and land grabs to restrictions on movement and marriage. Rohingya women, many of whom are uneducated, stay-at-home wives and daughters, often find themselves at the bottom of the social ladder.

Laila, for example, was 14 when she got married and 15 when she had her first baby. Six months ago, when she was pregnant with their third child, her husband fled Burma with his second wife, aged 18. Laila lost the baby.

Now 20, Laila is the sole breadwinner in the family, which includes her husband’s younger brother. She has resorted to selling half her rations from the World Food Programme to buy fish and firewood.

Then there’s Sinuwara Begum, who was about to deliver when her husband left their tarpaulin tent at dusk, ostensibly to board a fishing boat that would take him to Malaysia. He left her not a cent. She gave birth to twin boys days later.

When we met, her babies were nine days old and she had still heard nothing from her husband.  “Maybe he is still on the boat and has not arrived,” she said, hope in her voice.

4 Responses to Sexism, Racism, Poor Education Condemn Rohingya Women

  1. Myanmar way of democracy.

  2. Sure the last thing one want to be born into is into such live without any right as a women in the Muslim community in Northern Rakhine state, where ever they come / came from what ever nationality they have or want to have.
    It is long over time to look legally into these issues and have Monogamy by law enforced in Myanmar ( which applies of course also to many crony and rich Buddhist Myanmar men as well than with many small women at sides ). Many issues must be cleared by law and the new Rakhine PM mentioned that he will enforce Law and order and so here a best way to start to ensure that these women enjoy the full freedom and protection by the law. Mostly it is the police and people in charge for such which neglect the law as well earn well by letting it go. So the first place to clean up in N Rakhin for the PM will be the ranks and files of Police , SP, BSI and other institutions down to village level,– miss using their positions and departments duty.,

  3. psy wirathu should read this article to understand more about what is the difference between human and animal behavior before he learn Buddhism.

  4. Irrawaddy: ‘the aid agencies that could have promoted family planning, like Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland (MSF), have been expelled from Arakan State after being accused of favoritism toward the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Burma despite living there for generations.’ Really? Have you any concrete evidence of MSF working for family planning among the rohingyas? They have worked for family planning for people other than Muslims in Arakan. They have given medicine to multiply the family members of the rohingyas … though rohingya men are marrying as many as six and eight wives, by divorcing one after another. MSF would see humanity in encouraging geometrical progression of rohingya birthrate by doing so, resulting in heavy burdens on local government and international aid agencies. Msf should be tried in a Neuremberg style courst for purposefully and inhumanly helping the rise of rohingya population.

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