Marie Sophie

21:00 – Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

In Cox’s Bazar, Marie watches a global news story unfold before her eyes

I am a feminist and a humanitarian.
I cannot be one without the other.

I live in an emergency setting: Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where two years ago, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled armed conflict over the border in Myanmar.

Women in Cox’s Bazar have many different realities. There are those that focus on their families, those that work here, and those that simply try to survive.

Rohingya communities are conservative and women are rarely afforded a say in matters that affect their lives or future. But crisis and displacement upend societal structures, and here, now, women have taken on new leadership roles in the response. This includes the numerous Rohingya women and adolescent girls working as volunteers, camp leaders & advocates in the camps, the female police, midwives, health workers and teachers deployed in the camps, and the local & international female humanitarian workers at all levels.

But this is no feminist utopia. Even though 80% of refugees are women and children, the genders are starkly segregated. Rohingya women still speak of the violence, killings, torture, rape, & injustices perpetrated against them and their loved ones in Rakhine State, Myanmar.

Rohingya women in the camps – the survivors of this violence and conflict – spend most of their time inside the camp shelters, hiding from the stifling heat, heavy rain and the conservative social norms. 

But the apparatus of the international humanitarian response here hides a notable truth: that it was these women themselves who were the first responders when conflict erupted. When the army came it was these women who hid their children, applied binds to wounds, and helped carry the sick and young to safety.

And it was the women from the local communities here in Bangladesh who were the first to provide life-saving relief to those crossing the border by giving them shelter, food & helping pregnant women give birth.

Almost every day I meet more Rohingya women and adolescent girls who are self-organising and forming their own groups to advocate for their rights and call for justice. They organise to provide services and support to other women and girls in the camps, everything from counselling and healthcare to literacy classes and livelihoods training. 

The Shanti Mohila network is a group of women of all ages who together submitted a request for the International Criminal Court last year to investigate the crimes committed against them. The Rohingya Women’s Welfare Society spoke to the United Nations Security Council last year and provides a continuous service to women on issues of domestic violence, child marriage, health and education. 

I feel extremely privileged that my job is to listen to Rohingya women, and make sure that the humanitarian response here is shaped by their opinions, defined by their rights, and obligated to their needs. 

Yet, I also feel a certain discomfort knowing I sometimes have to speak on their behalf. That I have the freedom to leave the camps at the end of my working day. That I have the ability to plan my future after my time in Bangladesh. As I was working in Myanmar -including with women in the Rohingya camps in Rakhine – before moving to Cox’s Bazar, it is also a gross reality how different my move across the border has been in comparison.

So I speak up for these women. Because they don’t always get a voice at the table, it is my job to lend them mine. But getting women’s issues on the agenda isn’t always easy in a fast-moving emergency response. People – men – inform me in meetings that we are dealing with bigger problems than the situation of women and girls. 

But it gets personal. I get asked if I am an intern. Whether my dad got me this job. To regular comments on my body and looks, questions around my marital status, even to inappropriate late-night calls, messages & harassment on the street. 

But as unwelcome as this is, the barriers I face are minor compared to what my Bangladeshi and Rohingya female humanitarian colleagues have to deal with. 

For a period the refugee crisis here was the biggest news story in the world. Now a lot of that attention has drifted and local media here portrays female aid workers as morally corrupt, adding to the overall negative stigma against them,  even leading to security threats. The women who have organised themselves to try to dismantle gender barriers have reported restrictions to their work in the camps. Volunteer women have faced harassment and threats by men, and in some cases their male relatives or other family members, in an effort to prevent their engagement in volunteer work. 

These threats have affected service delivery in the camps, with refugee women teachers, health & community outreach volunteers refraining from pursuing volunteer activities due to security concerns for themselves and their families. 

But these are women who lost everything and refused to be quiet about it. They have had loved ones ripped from their arms, homes burned to the ground, and been forced to flee. Nevertheless, these women know they have rights. Nevertheless, they bring themselves together to help themselves and others. Nevertheless, these women persist.


Marie Sophie Pettersson is Gender and Humanitarian Action Programme Specialist with UN Women, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.