Speaking Out Against the Systematic Violence Facing Rohingya Women and Girls

“I speak today on behalf of my people, who have been driven from our motherland,” Razia Sultana told the UN Security Council Monday. “Where I come from, women and girls have been gang-raped, tortured and killed by the Myanmar Army, for no other reason than for being Rohingya.” Sultana made history Monday as the first Rohingya to ever brief the Security Council, speaking on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security at its Open Debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Sultana is a Senior Researcher with Kalandan Press, coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition, Director of Arakan Rohingya National Organization’s women section and the founder of Rohingya Women Welfare. She specializes in trauma, mass rape and trafficking of Rohingya girls and women and has been working with refugee Rohingya in Bangladesh since 2014. In her historic statement, she outlined the Myanmar army’s systematic weaponization of sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls and called for an increase in aid to those who fled to Bangladesh and for a formal international response driven by a human rights lens.

“My own research and interviews provide evidence that Government troops raped well over 300 women and girls in 17 villages in Rakhine State,” Sultana explained. “With over 350 villages attacked and burned since August 2017, this number is likely only a fraction of the actual total number of women raped. Girls as young as six were gang-raped. Women and girls were caught and gang-raped in their homes as they were running away or trying to cross the Bangladesh border. Some were horribly mutilated and burned alive.”

In January, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) appealed to the UN Security Council to intervene in Myanmar, where systematic violence against Rohingya has displaced over 600,000 and left women and girls across the region more vulnerable to rape, trafficking and even sexual slavery. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, CFR senior fellow for Women and Foreign Policy Jamille Bigio and director of the CFR Women and Foreign Policy program Rachel Vogelstein recalled that Pramila Patten, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, similarly urged the Security Council to take action after she found that nearly all of the women and girls she met on a visit to Bangladesh late last year had witnessed or survived sexual assault. (Humanitarian groups estimate that 60 percent of those displaced in Bangladesh are women and girls.)

The Myanmar military was listed in this year’s Secretary General Report on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and the Security Council is visiting Myanmar and the refugee camps in Bangladesh later this month. As the UN increases its focus on the region, Sultana urged them to also increase their commitment to ending systematic attacks on the Rohingya and the widespread sexual violence being perpetrated against women and girls. “I am extremely grateful to Bangladesh for opening its borders,” Sultana noted to the body. “However, the international community, especially the Security Council, has failed us.”

The disturbing violence facing Rohingya women and girls is appalling and its implications are far-reaching—but it is, unfortunately, not uncommon. Women in other nations are suffering similar fates, including, as Sultana explained, Yemen and Syria, where millions of women and girls are at risk of sexual violence at the hands of military and government forces and militias. “My statement today is not only for Rohingya women,” Sultana declared to the Security Council, “but for my other ethnic sisters who are also facing atrocities.” In her statement, she also spotlighted the women community leaders coming together to “build inter-ethnic peace and community relations” in Myanmar, as well as the young Rohingya women playing vital roles in raising awareness and coordinating humanitarian projects in refugee camps.

This kind of activism is typical in a climate where women, though often excluded from decision-making tables, are driving forces for peace around the world—and often the first to see and feel extremism and violence on the ground in their communities. “Many of Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities, including the Karen, Kachin, Chin, Mung and Shan, have also faced decades of entrenched discrimination, rape and other human rights violations by the military operating with impunity,” Sultana reminded the Council. “What is happening now is only on a much larger scale.”

Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms. and Contributing Editor and Co-Founder of Argot Magazine; her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, Bitch, Mic, MEL, Everyday Feminism and Autostraddle, where she was previously Community Director and Feminism Editor. Like everyone else in LA, she once had a podcast; unlike everyone else, she stays pretty zen in traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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