Chapter 1: Rohingya Refugee Camp


Six bricks make a surround for a small open flame, a dented and black scalded kettle sitting on top of them. The service is for construction workers tackling the dozen open sided buildings that surround our hotel. The seaside town is dusty, colorful, people filled, litter-strewn. Our lead driver is a police officer, something the UN requires, and it bugs me he has a small bamboo stick that he occasionally waves out his window. Presently the roads aren’t terribly crowded, but it seems inevitable that that stick makes contact with objects – human objects – on occasion.

The sky is heavy with haze. Corrugated tin is brown with dirt, red with rust. Shops display foil packets of snacks, and women in layers of scarves walk past narrow hipped cows.Families work in trash heaps, collecting what may be valuable to them.

The drive to the 3,000 acres of Rohingya refugee camps is a typical Bangladeshi scene. The Bay of Bengal is occasionally visible, and a few bright green rectangular fields of rice are spotted with bent over bodies working in mud up to their calves.


Who perpetrates the violence? Why is a female so vulnerable when she goes to the latrine? There may be explanations, but there are no answers that satisfy.


Larger and longer than beached sea lions, we pass sand-colored concrete bags that have been laid out to try to protect the road from the swelling sea. Although my focus is gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health, the climate vulnerability of Bangladesh is an equally fraught part of the story.


The latrines were opened as soon as the camp began to receive Rohingya, back in August. they are few, and they are “overloaded.” I know I will have to use them, even though I tried to drink my water early in the day to avoid having to go tinkle. It’s always a conflict for me. I’d rather just squat somewhere and go, but I have to use the feces filled latrines like everybody else. The coming monsoons (April) hold black promises of very bad prospects. There is already open defecation, especially the children, who can’t wait for long hours to get to, or in the queue for, the latrines. Plus, women and children have to wait after the men, so even if they’ve been in linemen cut in front of them, further driving some not to use latrines

The showers are really only in name. A woman walks a long distance to fetch a pail of water (the pail often provided by UNFPA), which she hauls to a place where she bathes in her clothes. The showers don’t grant much privacy. Disrobing is dangerous. She then walks home in her wet clothes.


We turn off Marine Road, the road the military built along the longest stretch of natural seashore in the world, and crawl through a village, Shonapara (Golden Area). Homes are made of layers of tin, tarps, and occasionally wattle. There is some brick, but rarely the traditional mud from which houses used to be made. A pair of boys sag under the shared weight of a long bamboo pole onto which they have slung some heavy burden.


I wonder what it feels like to stand in a rice paddy, water up the mid calves, with the little shrimp and other native fish nibbling around the ankles! Fatima starts going into detail about how delicious the various fish are, in soups and in curry, and all I can do is feel squeamish about my dry feet in a car imagining the rice paddy mud between my toes…..this from a woman who hikes barefoot.I think it’s all the litter I see, I am afraid there is trash in the rice paddies, even if I can’t see any. Later, I blurt out, “I have to get in a rice paddy.” I do, tentatively at first, and then with gusto. It’s quite yummy, the mud, and I am careful to step between the rice plants, and even try to place my feet where Bangladeshi feet have walked, where I can see traces of footprints suctioned in the mud.


Trash burns. A dog limps. A Help Rohingya sign is posted on the roadside. We pass tin and metalworking roadside businesses, homemade hammers clanging, and sparks from rudimentary welding flying. A boy in a red shirt with a toy car on it lallygags on a bench, rolling his tongue, under a poster of Sheikh Hasina, “Mother of Humanity.” Prime Minister since 2009, she opened the borders to Rohingya.

Our drive is a little over an hour. In October of 2016, an influx of 886,000 Rohingya clogged the roadside, people coated with mud, barely clad, begging, leaping at cars. Then, the drive took 4 hours.


The 19 Women Friendly Space, Shanti Khana, as Rohingya call them (Peace Houses), are open 9 am until 4:30 pm, when the staff, for security reasons, must leave the camp. They are as safe places where women can relax, build peer networks, receive psychosocial support, and hear about the services that are available across the camp from a variety of service delivery groups. There are caseworkers and case managers, and today we will be starting a garden, and painting the space, so it can really be the women’s own, as they want it to look and feel.

Abruptly, the road turns to a red-brown dust and is rimmed by a line squatting men with flat green fronds at their feet, that somehow they keep shiny, free from dust.

The camp is swarming, heaving, crawling with people. I abruptly realize every single one of them walked here from Myanmar and my heart hurts.



Every day, some 500 women and girls die from childbirth and pregnancy in areas affected by, or prone to, conflict or natural disaster. In these settings, women and girls are often cut off from health care and exposed to trauma, malnutrition and disease. But their lives can be saved with access to quality sexual and reproductive health services. Visit Safe Birth Even Here to see how you can play a role and help those who need help the most.