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3 Rohingya Muslim Women Recount Horrors They’ve Escaped From

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By Safeena Wani: 

“My son was 16,” says Mehjabeen. “One night, Burmese soldiers raided our house, beat us black and blue and took my son away.” She never found out what happened to him. Her husband died of a heart attack a year later. His last wish was to see his son.

Mehjabeen is sitting with Naseema Begum, who fled the country in 2008. She says her husband and elder son were beaten up and hanged from a tree in the courtyard of their house. Her younger son was arrested for alleged links to Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, never to return.

A Rohingya Muslim Refugee in India talks about her experiences
Naseema Begum, a Rohingya Muslim woman recounts the horrors of her past.

Sitting in a shanty next to a garbage dump, Naseema and Mehjabeen casually discuss the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar that drove the two women to flee to Jammu leaving their home behind. As of January 2017, close to 92,000 people like Naseema and Mehjabeen have been displaced because of the violence.

It is estimated that 36,000 Rohingya Muslims live in India today, most of them having arrived in the aftermath of the 2012 sectarian riots.

The Horrors Inflicted By The Myanmar Army

Rohingya women fear the sight of a uniform – soldier or police. “In our village in Myanmar, whenever soldiers or cops showed up, no woman dared to step out,” says Naseema. “I saw them kill and rape women. Burmese doctors refused to treat us.”

Many Rohingya Muslims, including single widowed mothers, live in squalid shanty clusters across Jammu.

As Myanmar’s neighbour and as a signatory to the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), India has an important role to play in not only finding a sustainable solution to the whole problem but in also supporting Rohingyas struggle for securing justice at the international level. India should ideally ensure that those Rohingyas who now live in India are not subject to further abuse or discrimination. Yet, the Rohingyas continue to live in deplorable conditions. And Khalija Bibi, who lives in a shed made of branches, shrub and plastic sheet, is a testament to this reality. Bibi got married in 2008 and fled to Jammu in 2012 at the height of the persecution when a battery of Burmese soldiers attacked her at her home in the village of Hasarbi Auk Purma in Myanmar.

They gang-raped her. She managed to escape with her three children, but her fourth child – a 4-year-old boy – got left behind and was killed by the Burmese. After that, staying in the village was unthinkable. Bibi sold off her property and valuables and with Rs 5 lakh in hand, made the long and painful journey to India. The family crossed the Bangladesh border at Jadi Mura into Meghalaya and then paid ₹5000 per head to travel to Kolkata.

“In Kolkata, the cops took ₹ 1 lakh from us and put me and my children in the train to Jammu. My husband was taken to the police station for filling some forms.”

On reaching Jammu, she found a few relatives there. Her husband joined her a week later and Bibi started a new chapter in her life. It is a life not much to write home about but at least she and her family are safe. Her husband is happy to earn ₹400 a day which helps them pay the rent of a juggi at ₹600 per month, along with electricity and water bills.

Khalija Bibi, a Rohingya Muslim refugee with her family in a juggi in Jammu.
Khalija Bibi, a Rohingya Muslim refugee with her family in a juggi in Jammu.

That said, sometimes she still wakes up in the middle of the night covered in sweat. The horrors of the past refuse to stop haunting her, even in this new life.

A New Threat To Face

Then there is the added threat of displacement that is hanging on the community’s head. The Modi government is “exploring” methods to deport them to Myanmar where they are persona non grata in a move that will only push the community to further depredation and violence.

This, after the Panthers Party first, and later the Jammu unit of the BJP, called for the deportation of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis living in Jammu. The reason: Hindu Dogra majority of Jammu fear they will be swamped by Muslims. The presence of Rohingya Muslims so close to the border with Pakistan is also cited as a reason.

However, according to J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, no Rohingya Muslim was found to be involved in militancy-related incidents.

“Seventeen FIRs have been registered against 38 Rohingyas for various offences, including illegal border crossing,” the chief minister said. “A total 5,743 Myanmarese are living in the state, almost all of them in Jammu,” Mufti had said in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in January this year.

The Panthers Party is not mollified. It has put up hoardings all over Jammu warning the government that if the Centre doesn’t take steps to deport Rohingya Muslims from Jammu, it would. “Their high presence in ‘the city of temples’ is an attempt to disintegrate India,” warns Prof Bhim Singh, Panthers Party Supremo.

Traders of Jammu have also jumped into the fray. A traders body has even threatened to “identify and kill them” if the government fails to deport Rohingya Muslims.

As an upcoming economic power committed to achieving Global Sustainable Goals, India’s role in providing aid to the displaced Rohingya Muslims is crucial. The government must take remedial steps necessary towards delivering justice to the Rohingyas. For this, India not only needs to put an end to the rampant discrimination being faced by Rohingya women in the country, but to go that extra mile to eliminate all forms of violence against them. This can only happen by strengthening India’s institutions of democracy and by actively seeking justice for the community at both the national and international levels. It is also in India’s interest to reduce all forms of violence and work towards finding lasting solutions to conflict, most notably by putting diplomatic pressure on the Myanmar government to take remedial steps necessary towards delivering justice to the Rohingyas.

India has shared a cordial relationship with Myanmar ever since the Treaty of Friendship was signed between the two. With the formation of the new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015 and India’s aspirations in South East Asia, things sure have become complicated. But by taking a non-friendly stand against the refugees, the country is going against its commitment to finding a long-term solution to the conflict and its promise of protecting the Rohingyas from further crime and exploitation. It is not too late to correct this grave error and to stand on the right side of history.

Safeena Wani is a Srinagar-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

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  1. Vishal Saurav

    If reporter is so much concern for illegal rohingya migrants, she should ask for their relocation in Kashmir valley region instead of Jammu.
    People of valley want Islamic Jammu Kashmir and non-Muslim population of state is biggest hurdle in their way. So, they forced KPs to leave valley, Kashmir politicians oppose grant of citizenship to West Pakistan Hindu migrants who migrated after partion. And now want rohingyas to settle in jammu. Hight of hypocrisy in the name of human right.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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