(Bloomberg) -- In a few weeks, annual monsoon rains will drench Bangladesh. At the same time, along the country’s border with Myanmar, thousands of girls and women living in flimsy bamboo huts will be going into labor. Those new mothers will have to confront not only floods and mudslides, and a widespread lack of services, but a deep and unrelenting social stigma.
The estimated 700,000 Rohingya refugees driven into Bangladesh by Burmese security forces last fall, in what the United Nations and others have said appears to be a textbook case of ethnic cleansing, have suffered a host of traumas. Thousands are believed to have been killed. Their villages were razed and families scattered.
Thousands of young women, meanwhile, appear to have been victims of a systematic campaign of rape. A recent report by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres found that the widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to the Burmese military’s effort to terrorize the Rohingya community — a tool deliberately employed to drive them from their homeland and dissuade them from ever returning.
Both of us have recently visited Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh — site of what has suddenly become the world's largest refugee camp. We heard wrenching accounts from women and girls: credible, concordant accounts of rape and gang rape on a massive scale, as well as abduction for the purpose of sexual slavery. Even if not every detail can be confirmed, the broad outlines of what happened to these women are clear.
We believe that there are at least 40,000 pregnancies among Rohingya refugee women and children; the Bangladesh Health Ministry estimated double that number in December 2017. Rape is the likely cause of many of those pregnancies.
The suffering of these women has continued in the months since being attacked. Traumatized, and bound by the deeply conservative mores of Rohingya society, victims are often reluctant to seek help. In any case, Bangladesh and its humanitarian partners are struggling to provide the support they deeply need. Partly due to limited funding and burdensome administrative requirements, victims have little to no access to health-care services in the camps. And even successful deliveries won’t end their ordeals. They and their babies are almost certain to be ostracized socially, cut off from their extended families and left to fend for themselves.
There’s little time to waste. The rains have already begun in Cox’s Bazar; May is also cyclone season. Floods and landslides in the camps could be calamitous even without a sudden surge of obstetric deliveries. While humanitarian agencies are preparing for the monsoon as best they can, they need far greater resources.
Certainly, the long-term challenges facing Rohingya rape victims are daunting. Shaping social attitudes to welcome them back into the community will require patience and education. Holding those responsible for these horrendous crimes accountable will be critical to restoring the dignity of the victims.
But the first priority must be to save lives, which means moving these expectant mothers to sites less vulnerable to the oncoming rains. They cannot be cared for where they are. And the international community cannot allow them to be victimized a second time.
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