Rohingya women defy threats in refugee camps to rebuild lives one stitch at a time

KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rohingya refugee Shofika Begum can’t stop the flashbacks from two years ago when her husband and sister were shot dead and she was raped in her village in Myanmar that was then torched.

Begum, 22, escaped and now lives in the world’s largest refugee settlement in southeast Bangladesh, where she leads a group of about 70 Rohingya women tailors, all of whom survived rape or witnessed horrific killings before fleeing Myanmar.

All hope the cooperative Testimony Tailors will help them support their families and regain control of their lives, but they are battling a new threat - resistance to women working and taking leadership roles in their conservative Islamic society.

For in the Rohingya’s previous lifestyle in Myanmar, women rarely left the house and were segregated from men.

“There’s a mixture of opinions among people on working women,” said Shamima Bibi, a Rohingya refugee and founder of the Rohingya Women’s Education Initiative in the camps that house more than 900,000 people near the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar.

“Those who agree, praise us a lot ... but those who don’t, they discourage women by calling them bad names and refer to them as illegal people of the community.”

Two years after more than 730,000 mostly-Muslim Rohingya fled Buddhist-dominated Myanmar after decades of under apartheid-like restrictions, women are struggling to reposition themselves in society.

The Rohingya fled Myanmar to join others in neighboring Bangladesh to escape a military offensive the United Nations called “ethnic cleansing” of one of the most oppressed people.

From the outset women and girls - who make up 52 percent of the refugee population - were deemed by authorities as the most vulnerable group, at risk of sexual and other violence.

Working with refugee women, non-government organizations and charities set up women’s centers in the camps, health clinics, and training for women in sewing, crafts, and printing among other skills to help them set up their own businesses.


But women trying to forge a new path have been facing increasing numbers of threats and warnings against breaking conservative Islamic norms.

Southeast Asia-based human rights group Fortify Rights gathered testimony of a woman who resigned from her job in an aid organization after threats as she worked outside the home.

An official from Bangladeshi aid group BRAC in April said 150 of its female teachers had stopped going to work in learning centers in the camps after receiving or hearing about “violent threats”.

But many women in the camps said they needed to be active, with many households now run by women and no sign of leaving the camps in the near future.

Begum said working for Testimony Tailors - set up with the help of British charity Hands International - was a way to try to put the past behind her whilst also helping her family.

“For me and the others, stitching here is not just a means of income. It keeps your mind away from those memories which haunt you every now and then,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Kutupalong, the largest camp in the settlement.

“I counted 25 women, in batches of five, who were taken inside the house and raped before it was my turn. I lost a lot that day,” she recalled, nervously fidgeting with her hands.

The members of Testimony Tailors make traditional Rohingya clothes which can be bought on its website and donated to refugees in the camps, with orders coming in from people in Canada, Britain and even Myanmar.

Minara Begum, a member of the group, said she earned between $140 to $180 a month - almost twice the minimum wage paid to a Bangladeshi garment worker.

“If someone else from my family feeds my children, I can stitch around eight to nine dresses a day,” said Begum, a mother-of-three in a break from stitching near a square shaped window cut out of the tarpaulin wall of her home.


But a coordinator of Testimony Tailors, Shofika Begum, who helps train women to join the cooperative, said the increasing threats were a deterrent to some women joining the group.

“There were three women who used to come to my house to learn stitching even three months ago but they suddenly stopped,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“When I asked them why, they said their parents didn’t allow them to continue working. Their parents didn’t like that married women like them are spending so much time outside the home.”

Expecting to stay in Bangladesh for some time, members of Testimony Tailors said they wanted smartphones to browse designs on the internet and improve their work.

“For now, we have regular meetings where we talk about new designs but if we had access to the internet, we could have done more. We really want to improve and make it bigger,” said Begum.

The United Nations and Western countries said the 2017 military crackdown included mass killings and gang-rapes and attempts since to persuade Rohingya to return to Myanmar have failed with fresh attempts at repatriation stalling this month.

Myanmar has previously rejected the U.N.’s categorization of the violence as “one-sided” saying action followed militant attacks on security forces and was a legitimate counter-insurgency operation.

Tara Begum, one of the few women leaders in the camps, said while talks about the future continued, life in the camps was developing and the changing role of women slowly being accepted.

Begum was chosen as the leader of one part of Kutupalong camp during elections organized by the government with the help of aid agencies with her role to help address issues ranging from gender-based violence to keeping the camps clean.

“My husband wasn’t happy when I decided to contest for the elections. But once people started saying good things about me, he changed his mind,” she said.

“I think we need more women leaders. We need them especially because there are some issues which women don’t openly talk about with male leaders and I can address them properly.”

Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit