Blog post by Arifur Rahman, a law graduate of the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh

Integrating a gender perspective into the discussions on the crisis of Rohingya refugees predominantly focuses on the understanding of Rohingya women as a single category sharing a similar experience and therefore on a one-size-fits-all approach to address the particular challenges experienced by Rohingya women living in Bangladesh. Within the discussions the idea of diverse experiences rooted in the intersection between gender and other compounding grounds such as race or disability along with refugee status is, however, overlooked. Rohingya women with disabilities therefore, become a part of the human rights crisis of Rohingyas in a two-fold way. Usually, they are either included in the group of Rohingya women or in the group of disabled Rohingya which, accordingly, turns a blind eye to the specific yet compounded experience that the group have as a distinctive category, that is, “Rohingya women with disabilities”. This post, against this context, expounds on the issue of the human rights crisis of Rohingya women with disabilities in Bangladesh by adopting an intersectional approach.

Bangladesh is currently hosting more than 950,000 Rohingya people. A large number of the population in the camps are women whose experience of life in the refugee camps is rife with varied complexity and challenges such as insecurity in the camps, fear of sexual and gender based violence, and limited movement outside the shelters. Many of the Rohingya women survived rape and other forms of sexual violence before the displacement which eventually resulted in psychological trauma and distress. But in Bangladesh they have very limited psychological resources for seeking help. Moreover, as a large number of Rohingya girls have dropped out of schools due to the forced displacement, they remain at a higher risk of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. What becomes an additive ground to the existing vulnerability of the Rohingya women refugees is disability. The potential of disability to be a compounded ground to increase the harm of certain groups such as women has been pointed out by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disability in the name of “intersectional discrimination”. The committee explains that discrimination can have an intersecting feature which is a sum of multiple characteristics e.g., gender or disability taking the form of intersectional discrimination. As a result, while disabled Rohingya women patently share similar difficulties with Rohingya refugees in general, their experience differs in the sense that they remain at the margin of disproportionate harm because of their intersectional vulnerability.

To impose intersectionality, a method scrutinizing the social inequality transcending the single-axis lens, into vulnerability means an interrogation into the intricacies of vulnerabilities of a certain group and “whether vulnerabilities are acknowledged with respect to intersecting social positions”. That means, along with inherent vulnerability (vulnerability that originates from human corporality such as thirst, and hunger), a particular group could be doubly vulnerable, therefore, marginalised due to certain social positions and contexts. In this way, vulnerability is also a social construction since the way it impacts a certain group also depends on variables such as culture, geography, and environment, among others. On that ground, Rohingya women with disabilities, as they experience harm, pain and suffering, stand in the complex world of identity interactions, say, for instance, between, sex/gender and disability as well as their social representation as a “refugee” in a country like Bangladesh. Eventually, the complex outcome of the interplay between intersectionality and vulnerability morphs into what can be called “the invisible human rights crisis” of Rohingya women with disabilities in Bangladesh.

In the refugee camps, while Gender-based Violence (GBV) is a common risk, Rohingya women with disabilities remain at a higher risk of GBV with an extremely poor rate of case reporting. With the limited Sexual and Gender based Violence (SGBV) related facilities along with dominant gender prejudice, Rohingya women with disabilities encounter more hurdles while accessing services. For instance, Rohingya girls are subject to limited mobility when they reach puberty, while women are strictly required to maintain purdah meaning to cover their body with adequate clothing and avoid contact with men who are not family members. Amongst Rohingyas, it is considered a shame to carry a woman, even if she is someone with any form of movement impairment requiring assistance. Accessing safe sanitation facilities particularly during the night is another challenge for Rohingya women/girls with disabilities as the latrines lack privacy, a good locking system, and adequate lighting, among others. A study shows that due to the insufficient assistive support devices such as wheelchairs, Rohingya girls with disabilities cannot access latrines in the camps, especially during the night. Moreover, as the roads in the camps are slippery and not equally levelled, Rohingya women with disabilities face more acute challenges in moving around the camps than their male counterparts with disabilities as gender plays an additional role in shaping the self-perceived degrees of functional ability among women with disabilities.

In a nutshell, although Rohingya women with disabilities suffer severe harm on the basis of intersectional grounds in the refugee camps, the focus primarily remains on the group as a singular category. Accordingly, it exacerbates the invisibility and marginalisation of the group along with the dearth of data focusing on their unique experience. Thus, it is recommended that an intersectional approach should be adopted at both policy and institutional levels to address the human rights crisis of Rohingya women with disabilities with a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding.

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