‘I am a leader of my house’
How Romida and Hafsa are pushing for change in the Rohingya refugee camps – while holding on to the hope of returning home.
Rohingya refugees have lived in Bangladesh for decades. They fled persecution in Myanmar, including a violent military purge that pushed out hundreds of thousands of people in 2017. As Romida and Hafsa found when they arrived, life in these cramped camps is hard, especially for women and children.
Women and girls live with daily struggles most men don’t have to think about: domestic violence, family restrictions, pressure or even threats from men who don’t think women should work outside the home …
… or simply the dangers of using a toilet at night.
… But some of these men don’t like having a woman in charge.
*unelected Rohingya representatives installed by the Bangladesh army.
“Through all of this, I never gave up the dream of studying further. I always wanted to graduate and become a teacher. Eventually, I made my dreams a reality.”
Romida and Hafsa see themselves as leaders, but they never planned for this. They both fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State during 2017’s military crackdown. UN investigators and human rights groups say the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar is part of a decades-long genocide. Government policies and military crackdowns have stripped them of citizenship, thrust apartheid-like restrictions on their daily lives, and expelled them from their homeland.
Within weeks, more than 700,000 people crossed into Bangladesh. Thousands were killed. Families were separated in the chaos.
The 2017 crackdown quadrupled the population of Bangladesh’s sprawling camps. Today, some 900,000 Rohingya live here. The vast majority are women or children.
Sometimes, there’s not enough water and food…
… and tiny tent homes are fragile and cramped.
But the biggest worry is the future. There is no formal schooling for most Rohingya, especially teenagers. There are NGO-run classes teaching basic lessons to younger children, but these were shut through most of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hafsa worries about what will happen to Rohingya children without a proper education. She wants to become a teacher, and to be a voice for the youngest generation.
“If there's education for everyone, every other problem will begin to find its solution.”
“Because of my education, I see myself as a leader in my community. I believe a woman is a born leader. I see my mother managing a house, which is similar to governmental work: It’s like managing a country. I am a leader of my house, even if society doesn’t accept me as a leader.”
The entire community's future is also uncertain. Few Rohingya have ever been resettled from Bangladesh; some have lived here for decades. Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine State still face heavy restrictions. Most refugees say it's not safe to return – especially after Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup in February 2021. But Romida and Hafsa say Bangladesh’s refugee camps will never feel like home, either.
As long as she remains in Bangladesh, Hafsa wants to help her community.
But her thoughts are still in Myanmar. She remembers how her father used to help her with the housework, even though it was her job, and how he prepared the children’s beds at night before they slept. She dreams of a day when she can safely return home, re-uniting her family.
This story was produced by The New Humanitarian and PositiveNegatives