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Two and a half years in, since the mass influx of severely persecuted stateless minority of close to 700,000 people of Myanmar, the prospect of protracted displacement for the Rohingya is a looming reality.
Traumatic stress from the violence experienced in the past and injustices survived over this lifetime are shaping common experiences of Rohingya women, who also make up more than half of the refugee population. Action Against Hunger runs an EU-funded Mental Health and Psychosocial Support programme that is re-building refugee lives for the better tomorrow.
More than a decade from now, 16-year-old Faresa, native from Rakhine State of Myanmar, was any ordinary teen holding the dream of happy marriage and a buzzling family of kids. Lesser she knew, her life would turn topsy-turvy when she was leaving her parent’s home for marrying with Ahmed. After first 2 years of marriage, Faresa gave birth to a baby girl, followed by stillbirth the next year. She never conceived again for reasons unknown. This was end of her happy married life.
In a society that puts premium on women’s childbearing capacity and has high expectations to have many children, Faresa’s barrenness costed her all relationships. In-laws, parents, and ultimately Ahmed deserted her and the only girl child she had. She was cursed, abused, and beaten every now and then. Ahmed openly threatened to leave her for another woman. The mental torture became unbearable, when she was forced to undergo treatment regimens by quacks and faith healers.
Faresa started blaming herself for her infertility and gradually accepted beatings from Ahmed as an appropriate treatment for a ‘woman’ like her. She gave up all hope to hold onto the family that was never supportive again.
In August 2017, state actors burned down her entire neighborhood to ashes with inhumane atrocities of rapes, murders and detention of thousands of Rohingya. Faresa, with her only child and husband ran away to reach the shores of Bangladesh for one more refuge of a marginalized life. The trauma of disturbed family situation and forced displacement continually added misery to her life, but the only hope that kept Faresa going was her daughter.
At one of the food distribution point, Faresa attended mental health awareness session organized by our community mobilization staff. She learnt that her nightmares, sleeplessness, loss of interest in daily activities, and feelings of unworthiness are symptoms of psychological distress and if she gathers the strength to talk about it, she can well cure it. Faresa recalls that was her maiden step towards a new lease of life, when she broke the spell and spoke with Hasina, the Psychosocial Worker facilitating awareness sessions.
"Later I realized, this is how my society treats women, with or without children, doesn’t really matter."
On knowing Faresa’s turmoil and daily hardships, Hasina invited her to join the peer support group organized at the Space Space for Women and Girls (SSWG), known as Shanti Khana (literally meaning, house of peace) among Rohingya. Faresa reiterates her experience, “As a battered woman, it took me longer to identify with women of my age gathered at Shanti Khana. My problem was unique. All of them are having 5-7 kids and still were beaten up by husbands or chased by strangers, molested and threatened. Later I realized, this is how my society treats women, with or without children, doesn’t really matter. Over sessions as we kept on sharing and listening to each other, our initial resistance turn into a process of reflection and reassurance. We only can change our situations”.
Faresa was then introduced to Rebeka, Psychologist at the Shanti Khana, who regularly presents herself to women survivors, provides emotional support for building their personal strengths, helps with practical safety planning in the face of violence, and enhances survivor’s social network by helping them identify other individuals who can be more caring, affectionate and supportive in the long run. Individual counselling poses with immense challenges. It takes skill and time to help survivors disclose their intimate personal problems and throughout the disclosure keep on strengthening the bare minimum resources they have.
Faresa’s involvement in MHPSS activities took setback when Ahmed stopped her from going out to the Shanti Khana. He has the feeling that the Psychologist at the center has fueled Faresa’s increasing assertiveness demanding to seek appropriate health treatment for her infertility and requests to stop abuse. When Rebeka and her psychosocial workers approached Ahmed at his shanty, he refused to meet and drove them away on multiple occasions. Instead of forcing Ahmed to comply, Rebeka took the local community leader, called Majhi, in confidence, asked him to organize men’s group, and invited Ahmed to attend.
Our male psychosocial worker, Mamun, started engaging this men’s group with discussions centered on challenging cultural patriarchal norms. Gradually, he sensitized the group members to chalk out ways they can be supportive as partners and caretakers of women, providing a sense of safety and security in the camps. Ahmed’s participation to these sessions helped him mallow down his anger towards Faresa and the psychosocial team supporting her. He allowed Faresa and at times also accompanied her to visit referral clinic for her health check-ups.
Today, over a span of one year, Faresa seems to have regained some normalcy. She is able to take treatment for her infertility. Ahmed has been more respectful and supportive than before. With a gleam of hope on her face, Faresa gracefully says, “Rohingya women and men need a listening ear. There are many women like her trapped in daily struggles of refugee life. When I have been helped, I can help many.” She is now a stronger voice that connects women survivors, brings their pain timely relief by referring to our comprehensive community-based Mental Health and Psychosocial Support programme. She is truly a Friend of Peace, Shanti Phoyaza!
With the EU-funded MHPSS programme, Action Against Hunger is able to develop capacities of 35 Bangladeshi Psychologists on trauma-informed mental health interventions, engage the refugee and host communities well through a team of 70 skilled psychosocial workers and nearly 100 Community Mental Health Volunteers, Shanti Phoyaza, likes of Faresa and many other women survivors. Our commitment served to as many as 17,700 women and girls, 5000 men and boys with psychological distress while addressing gender-based violence and protection concerns comprehensively for nearly 1800 women survivors in 2019 alone.