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Protection Risks During COVID-19: Negotiating Safe Access to Gender-Based Violence Services in The Rohingya Refugee Response in Cox’s Bazar

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The COVID-19 crisis has significant protection, health and socio-economic implications for the Rohingya refugee response. Nearly one million Rohingya refugees live alongside some of the most at-risk host communities in southern Bangladesh, a disaster-prone region already vulnerable to a wide-range of shocks and stresses, as well as domestic and gender-based violence.

Gendered Effects and Protection Risks in Bangladesh During the COVID-19 Lockdown

Since the lockdown was imposed and critical humanitarian activities re-defined in late March, humanitarian actors are struggling to negotiate access to communities at the advent of monsoon and cyclone season, making for an increasingly complex and multi-layered protection environment with intersecting risks related to COVID-19. There are also a number of gendered effects related to COVID-19 that disproportionately affect at-risk women and girls across refugee and host communities as well as their safe access to life-saving gender-based violence services.

National lockdown, restriction of movement, quarantine, isolation and community shielding measures are likely to negatively impact household tensions as the crisis becomes increasingly protracted, further restricting the movement of women and girls and their access to already limited services while contributing to an increase in intimate partner and domestic violence risks and violence against children. The COVID-19 response has overstretched the capacity of the health sector which raises key concerns related to the interruption of critical and life-saving sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence (GBV) services. Further mobility restrictions for women and girls have affected their access to service points, making safe case follow up an increasingly challenging activity. Moreover, the recent government restrictions have narrowed the scale and range of humanitarian operations permitted during COVID-19, which has impacted access to communities and the available referral pathways of support. As service providers reduce their field presence, the humanitarian space is shrinking, which is one of the biggest protective factors for affected communities.

Negotiating Safe Access to GBV Services and Adaptation of Modalities

GBV remains a major concern in Cox’s Bazar and negotiating GBV-related programming whether prevention, risk mitigation or response, is an on-going process that requires a multi-pronged approach working with local government authorities and communities. Three years into the humanitarian response, GBV specialists are more familiar with field-level negotiations which have had significantly more ‘buy-in’ at the community level, multi-sectoral services, referral pathways, community groups and engagement strategies. Negotiating GBV programming with local authorities at the camp level has always been challenging and constantly evolving. Within the current restrictions, GBV specialists have managed to negotiate some program components as ‘critical’ during COVID-19 which are more response-oriented and have adapted programming where possible.

Some protection actors have adapted their activities with remote approaches such as hotline or phone counseling. Yet, for GBV specialists such modalities can create new risks and are limited in scope since many women and girls do not have safe access to a phone. Key to note that relying on hotlines is precarious, given that Rohingya refugees are not legally allowed to access local SIM cards and telecommunications blackouts are frequent across the camps. Given such challenges, GBV actors have managed to negotiate the inclusion of certain ‘life-saving’ activities, specifically ensuring that in-person case management services are able to continue, usually embedded at service points in women and girls safe spaces or within health facilities. Although this is a significant achievement for the GBV sector given the restrictive operational environment at present, challenges continue to persist. For example, the fifty percent reduction in staffing due to ongoing government lockdown restrictions affects the quality of care and with this new status quo of ‘one caseworker per facility’ supervisors are concerned around quality of care, burnout of caseworkers and lack of adherence to interagency GBV minimum standards in emergencies. Community-level GBV prevention and outreach activities have been side-lined, to focus on COVID-19 awareness-raising.

Psychosocial support and life skills activities for women and girls have also managed to continue so long as they focus thematically on COVID-19. GBV specialists have had to become more innovative in their approaches given that it is essential to maintain non-case management services in such centres to ensure it remains a safe, non-stigmatizing space for women and girls and does not risk becoming a “GBV centre.” For example, tailoring and sewing classes, though interrupted at the onset of COVID-19, have been able to resume while adhering to physical distancing guidelines. Trained women and adolescent girls were able to maintain their skill development, now sewing masks for their communities and families.

IOM Protection conducts GBV risk mapping during monsoon season in Camp 9, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (Photo credit: Rawshan Zannat/IOM)

IOM Protection conducts GBV risk mapping during monsoon season in Camp 9, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (Photo credit: Rawshan Zannat/IOM)

Despite some recent inroads, rumors, fears and misinformation related to COVID-19 continue to impact access to services and there are increasing restrictions observed in the movement of women and girls in public space that hinder safe case follow up. GBV specialists have to consistently reiterate that lower reporting should not be misconstrued as a reduction in GBV. On the contrary, the absence of prevalence data coupled with observations from case management service providers is disconcerting for GBV specialists on the ground and much effort has been made between interagency technical working groups to strategically adapt interventions, closely monitor intimate partner violence cases and roll out GBV prevention curriculum framed as a ‘critical’ risk mitigation activity as part of COVID-19.

Disaster Preparedness: An Emerging Best Practice

Building upon past experiences and learning between GBV risk mitigation and disaster risk reduction, some key strategies have been adapted to respond to the dual challenge COVID-19 brings during monsoon season. The women’s committee in Teknaf, consisting of Rohingya and Bangladeshi women served as a best practice model. Trained as first responders, last year they played a key role in ensuring the most at-risk households and individuals were included in early warning and response mechanisms and developed household evacuation plans requiring specialized assistance to persons with mobility issues as well as safe referral of protection and GBV cases. IOM’s GBV outreach teams are framing COVID-19 as a similar risk akin to the more familiar shocks and stresses such as flooding, landslides and cyclones to develop household preparedness plans and is planning to repurpose existing community-led structures and skilled community groups towards supporting such efforts. Working alongside communities is crucial given the numerous concerns for individuals and communities (i.e. what to expect if someone is quarantined, being separated by loved ones amidst increasing tensions, rumors and fears). Integrating COVID-19 as ‘another risk to plan for’ can be a more holistic, practical approach to engage individuals and communities and maintain strong protection and GBV lens to risk mapping and action planning.

GBV specialists are also preparing for further access restrictions by strategically aligning with health teams. For example, the model of mobile medical response teams, activated usually in the immediate onset of a disaster, has embedded GBV focal points and will receive further training in light of COVID-19. GBV focal points will now be working in recently constructed quarantine facilities and isolation and treatment centres (ITCs) that have dedicated counseling rooms for protection.

Challenges to Deliver GBV Services in Line with The COVID-19 Response

It is key that governments, partners, and donors work under the assumption that GBV is occurring in all crises and that reliable prevalence data on the scope of GBV is not needed to design appropriate interventions. GBV data is and will always be difficult to obtain, due to insecurity, service gaps, lack of protection of survivors, fear of reprisals and impunity for perpetrators, social stigma, perceptions and cultural norms around sexual violence and community pressure over survivors. GBV services are life-saving and should be considered an equally critical part of the COVID-19 response. That said, these services should not focus only on ‘response’ or supporting survivors but also on a wide-range of complementary risk mitigation and prevention activities which will need to be adapted in light in COVID-19 prevention measures but cannot stop altogether.

Negotiation at the national level is now more imperative than ever to ensure access and maintain a protective environment for affected communities amidst evolving risks ranging from increased violence, abuse and exploitation, human trafficking, child protection and gender-based violence.

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‘Who holds the microphone?’ Crisis-affected women’s voices on gender-transformative changes in humanitarian settings: Experiences from Bangladesh, Colombia, Jordan and Uganda

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This report by UN Women uses a participatory methodology and looks at experiences of gender-transformative change, effective localization, and meaningful participation for women and girls affected by crisis, and provides entry points and recommendations for Grand Bargain signatories to move towards gender-transformative humanitarian action. The report demonstrates that engaging with diverse women (and women’s organizations) in their own terms, responding to their priorities and adapting to their ways of working constitute key drivers of gender-transformative change. Enhancing meaningful participation and effective localization is not only about what humanitarian responders do, but how they do it. Read the full report here!

In Their Own Words: COVID-19 Update on Displaced Persons with Disabilities

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As every country around the world navigates unprecedented restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) is working directly with humanitarian partners on the front lines during this crisis to advance research-based advocacy.

Critical to that is hearing from our partners about how the pandemic is affecting the lives of displaced women, children, and youth, including persons with disabilities. Read the full update here!


UN Migration Agency Helps Rohingya Women Organize in Bangladesh Camps

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Cox’s Bazar – Over 100 Rohingya women have formed a first-of-its-kind committee to ensure women and girls have a direct pathway and communication channel to UN project managers without having to go through male leaders in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar refugee camps.

The committee, supported by IOM, the UN Migration Agency, follows months of on-the-ground research and informal discussions with Rohingya women in the camps about what kind of platform would enable them to raise concerns with senior UN staff, without breaching cultural gender norms.

“We feel better now,” said committee chairwoman Muriom, after the official opening of an IOM-funded women-run community centre in Leda in the south of Cox’s Bazar, which the committee will oversee. “Before we did not get this kind of opportunity. Now we have this [committee and centre] and we know how to use them to change camp life,” she added.

Almost a million Rohingya refugees now live in Cox’s Bazar after atrocities in Myanmar in late August 2017 sent over 700,000 of the Muslim minority fleeing across the border to villages and camps in Bangladesh, where over 200,000 Rohingya were already living after escaping earlier bouts of violence.

The committee includes both recent refugees, who arrived as part of the mass flight from Myanmar in 2017, and those who arrived amid earlier waves of violence dating back to the 1990s.

Education levels and religious conservatism vary significantly between individuals, families and communities, but most Rohingya women do not read or write and many are discouraged from leaving family shelters. Few have much experience of speaking out in public, and most rely on male family members or community leaders to raise concerns on their behalf.

For organisations like IOM, a lead agency in the Rohingya response, finding a way to ensure women’s opinions, concerns and needs reach those charged with managing and developing the refugee settlements, can be a major challenge.

“There’s a lot of talk about women’s participation, but it has to be meaningful participation,” said project founder Consuelo Tangara, who is IOM’s Site Management Area Coordinator in Teknaf sub-district, where the committee is based.

According to Tangara, the idea of creating an “informal committee” outside the male-dominated official camp management system, was to provide an effective pathway that women feel comfortable with and that meets their needs, rather than trying to force them into systems established by men for men.

“Often when you ask a woman to take on a role they perceive as being for men, they don’t feel comfortable with it – and in the immediate aftermath of large-scale traumatic events, misjudged attempts to encourage participation can actually cause further distress,” she said.

“That it not true for everyone and can change over time. There’s a lot of work going on to increase women’s participation, representation and access to information in the formal camp-management systems with more women becoming involved. But in the meantime, those of us responsible for providing infrastructure and services still need to know what women’s immediate and wider concerns are, so we don’t put systems in place that ignore these needs and are then difficult to change later.”  

Activities in the camps are divided into “sectors” including Health, Protection, Camp Management and Development, and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). Under the new committee structure, each para (sub-section) of the camp will have a trained woman representative responsible for dealing with issues relating to each sector. She will share concerns and complaints with the women’s committee for the entire camp, who can then take them direct to IOM sector heads.

According to Tangara, the system will provide a stronger advocacy and reporting mechanism leading to faster responses from sector managers and will encourage sustainable participation. “When you are representing your own community, you want to make sure something happens. The committee members are also learning the skills of reaching out to sector heads and becoming comfortable with that,” she said.

This can make a huge difference to camp life and women’s lives in particular. “One concern we became very aware of is lack of street lighting around latrines and latrines that didn’t meet women’s needs for privacy or sense of security. Those are issues that are absolutely critical. If women are scared to go to latrines they end up adopting practices that are unsanitary and pose health risks. But it’s also the kind of issue that women might not feel comfortable going to male leaders with, or that would be given priority without women’s voices to push for it,” Tangara noted.

Following a trial period with the Leda committee, IOM hopes to roll out similar committee projects across all the camps for which it is responsible. “The more platforms there are for women to express their needs and opinions, the stronger community participation becomes overall. That then leads to stronger governance and civil society. IOM Bangladesh is completely committed to helping refugees to take their future into their own hands,” said IOM Cox’s Bazar Emergency Coordinator Manuel Pereira.

According to the women involved in Leda, their new committee is already helping them become more confident about participation. “Before [this committee was established] we were very afraid to share our thoughts and feelings, but now we’re going to share them,” Muriom explained.

She and other women on the committee already have a list of immediate priorities. “First of all, we want to earn money. Men work in Cash for Work programmes, but women don’t and now we want to work,” she said.

IOM is on track to have 50 per cent women’s participation in its Cash for Work programmes in the camps by year end, but the committee women also have their own livelihood plans to make soaps and handicrafts at the community centre to sell.

They also intend to raise the issue of gender-based violence and early (child) marriage with the wider community. “Early marriage, is very, very harmful. I’ve already talked to one family about it. At first the family said I had no right to talk to them about it. The boy was 15 and he was getting married. But then they changed their minds,” one of the committee members explained, adding that the training the group had received had helped them feel more assured about raising such issues.

As for tackling possible objections from the men in the community about their new committee, the women said they expect few problems. “No woman is going to do harmful work, and we promise that if anyone faces a problem they will be able to come to us. Maybe some of the newcomers [those who arrived post August 2017] might face some problems, so we have to choose strong women [for the committee] to support them.”

Male Rohingya leaders in the community, a number of whom turned out for the opening of the community centre, have also offered their backing. Abdul Matalob, 68, is a Rohingya leader in the camp and grandfather of committee member Nurul Jahan, 35. He said he was fully supportive of the women’s committee, though he recommended “getting more young women aged 18 to 25 involved, because at that age their minds are most open to new ideas.”


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