A Rohingya refugee mother struggles to maintain a sense of normalcy for her daughters

Ayesha Khatun, a single mother living in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, wears a yellow scarf in memory of her husband, who used to surprise her with sunflowers. Photo: Maruf Hasan/Oxfam

One year ago, Ayesha Khatun lost her husband and son and was forced to flee her home for her and her daughters’ safety. Now living in a refugee camp, she and other single mothers there worry about the lack of protections for women and girls. 

A year after their murders, Ayesha Khatun*, 35, is still reeling from the loss of her husband and 20-year-old son, while trying to maintain normalcy for her surviving children in the middle of a refugee camp. Khatun is one of the nearly one million Rohingya people who have fled violence in Myanmar and are living in crowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

About 700,000 refugees have taken shelter in Cox’s Bazaar since August 2017. Single mothers whose husbands are missing or dead, like Khatun, head one in six families in the Rohingya camps. They face a number of challenges, having to take on public roles that conflict with cultural and religious ideas about the place of women in society.

Khatun fled her home in Myanmar during the mass exodus. She recalls the events that led up to her escape: “I was having dinner with my husband, son, and two daughters when we heard screaming. We ran outside and saw men setting people’s houses on fire. We started to run, and they began shooting at us.”

Her husband was shot in the back while Khatun was shielding her daughters. It took a while before she realized something was wrong.

“I looked behind me and suddenly he wasn’t there,” she recounts. “I shouted his name, and then I saw my son going back for him. I screamed his name and tried to stop him, but he was crying and saying that he wanted to help him.”

Khatun watched in horror as her son—who was to get married in two days’ time—was shot.

“He fell to the ground beside his father,” she says “My 10-year-old was screaming. She was hiding in my skirt, so at least she did not see what happened, but my 18-year-old girl did. It is something she will never forget.”

The shooting continued. “I was so scared, I was shaking all over,” she says. With her husband and son bleeding, she was forced to make a horrible decision: to leave them behind so she could get her daughters to safety.

“My husband was a good man,” she says. “He worked hard as a laborer and looked after us. Sometimes he was romantic, and he would bring me sunflowers.”

There are no flowers in the camp, only mud and dust and dirt.

Adjusting to a new ‘normal’

In Myanmar, Khatun and her family lived in a four-bedroom house. Now, she says, they sleep on the hard ground. She’s also had to step into the role of father, going out to collect aid donations, firewood, and water—tasks her husband would normally do.

Khatun collects water for her family—a task her husband would normally take care of. Photo: Maruf Hasan/Oxfam

“Sometimes I don’t have any firewood, so I have to burn food wrappers and plastic bottles to cook rice and dal—the only food available to us,” she says.

Women are required to wear a burqa when they leave their dwellings. Khatun’s family was only given one burqa, which means she has to leave her daughters at home when she goes out. That concerns her, because she is afraid the girls will be abducted if they’re left alone. And she can’t bear to lose another child.

“We don’t like to go out at night, because it is not safe for women,” she says. There are no lights near her tent. Khatun and her daughters don’t eat or drink much at night, so they don’t have to use the bathroom.

“My youngest cries because she is hungry, and she says that her tummy hurts,” she laments. “I feel really sad when she is like this so I just hold her. What else can I do?”

They’re not alone. More than one-third of women in the camp surveyed by Oxfam and our partner agencies say they don’t feel safe going to collect water or using toilets and shower facilities—many of which lack roofs or doors with locks. At least half of the women and three-quarters of adolescent girls report not having what they need to manage their periods.

 “The breakneck speed at which the Rohingya refugee crisis unfolded meant that many emergency facilities were installed in a rush and women’s specific needs weren’t considered,” says Dorothy Sang, Oxfam’s advocacy manager in Cox’s Bazar. “Women and girls are now paying the price in terms of their well-being and safety.”

Ayesha Khatun with her daughters in their shelter in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Maruf Hasan/Oxfam

To fill those gaps, Oxfam is installing solar-powered lights and providing portable solar lamps so that refugees—women in particular—feel safer leaving their shelters after dark. Oxfam is also working with local organizations and communities to tackle issues such as early marriage, gender-based violence, and the stereotyping of men and women's roles in society. New toilet facilities with locking doors and privacy screens are also in the works.

So far, we have reached 266,000 people, with 385,000 liters of chlorinated drinking water a day, food vouchers, which can be exchanged for fresh ingredients at local markets to supplement rations and we hope to continue our work, and sewage treatment systems.

*Name changed to protect identity

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