UNITED NATIONS – Tens of thousands of pregnant Rohingya women, many of whom are believed to be victims of rape, are expected to give birth in the coming weeks in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled systematic violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh in what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has labelled a “textbook example of ethnic cleaning.” This displaced population includes an estimated 81,000 pregnant women and girls, according to the Bangladesh Health Ministry, while the UN puts the number at around 40,000.
“As documented by international medical staff and service providers operating in Bangladesh, many civilians bear the physical and psychological scars of brutal sexual assault,” a March UN Security Council report states. “The assaults were allegedly perpetrated by members of the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw), at times acting in concert with members of local militias, in the course of the military clearance operations.”
“They would line women up and take their pick and these rapes would just follow,” Dr. Fariha Khan, a physician who serves as a director at Islamic Relief Canada, explained.
That’s what allegedly happened to Fatema, a Rohingya refugee who says she was raped after her husband was murdered. The 16-year-old now doesn’t know whose baby she is carrying.
“If it is from my husband then it will have his features; if it is from someone else, it will have theirs,” she said in an interview. “He is my baby and I will have to love him.”
According to the UN, roughly 60 babies are born in the Bangladesh camps every day. More than 16,000 have been born so far this year. Those numbers are now expected to skyrocket, with an anticipated 25,000 babies expected in late May and June alone — proof, aid workers say, of systematic sexual violence.
“What is emerging now is requests by a number of women to place their children in foster care,” Pramila Patten, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, said.
“Who’s going to go around and pick up the babies that these girls can’t care for?” Toronto-based Obstetrician/Gynecologist Dr. Christine Derzko added. “What can a 10-year-old do in terms of taking care of a baby?”
Fearing being ostracized, many women, the UN says, are now hiding their pregnancies or seeking out dangerous makeshift abortions in the overcrowded camps, which are also suffering from a lack of clean drinking water and cholera outbreaks. In June, moreover, the onset of Bangladesh’s monsoon season is expected to bring even more hardship to the long-suffering refugees.
A Canadian human rights group is now demanding that world leaders do more than just send aid to the troubled region — they want what they believe to be the attempted annihilation of the Rohingya people to be officially declared an act of genocide. So far, though, governments have balked at such a suggestion.
“I am told by Government of Canada officials that there is concern if they name one genocide, they may have to name other genocides,” John Packer, director of the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre, explained.
By Peter Akman