WHEN almost 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border to escape a military crackdown in Burma (Myanmar), they came with disturbing tales of systematic rape and sexual violence at the hands of soldiers and militiamen.
Nine months after the first victims started to arrive in Bangladesh, humanitarian workers are bracing for an anticipated baby boom of infants conceived out of this brutal episode.
“Based on UN reports and testimonies told to our staff of rape and sexual violence in Myanmar, which peaked last August and September, sadly we expect the number of babies born in Cox’s Bazar as a result of unwarranted pregnancies to increase in the coming months,” Beatriz Ochoa, Save the Children’s Humanitarian Advocacy Manager in Cox’s Bazar, told Asian Correspondent.
Recent figures predict over 48,000 babies will be born in the refugee camps in the coming year. That’s an average of 131 newborns each day entering an uncertain world of squalor and danger.
This is expected to peak in May and June – the window in which women who became pregnant during the military offensive are most likely to give birth.
Aid workers are already struggling to keep pace with the needs of so many vulnerable people. With health centres and designated safe spaces buckling under the weight, there is concern for the wellbeing of these newborns.
Save the Children, along with other aid agencies, are undertaking community outreach work in the camps to identify survivors of sexual violence and rape, Ochoa said.
They are also training health practitioners and providing support to new mothers to help them cope with the practical and mental stresses they face. This includes psychosocial counselling, medical support and ongoing case management support.
But even with this care, many women are still afraid and ashamed to approach health agencies and instead deliver their babies themselves, often in secret.
In November, Human Rights Watch (HRW) found two-thirds of the women and girls they interviewed had not reported their rape to aid groups or Bangladeshi authorities for fear of stigmatisation.
Medical co-ordinator for Medicin San Frontiers, Melissa How, told The Australian aid workers are trying hard to convince women to give birth in clinics. But the number of women and girls doing so is still very low — only 23 percent of babies born in the camps so far have been delivered in health facilities.
“Many Rohingya girls and women have been grappling with the horrific experience of being raped and then falling pregnant,” Ochua told us. “However, because of the associated stigma it can be difficult to identify cases, despite the overwhelming need for more support.”
Some newborns have been left in hospitals and fostered out to families in the camps, though it is not clear whether even those families know the infants were conceived out of sexual violence and if they would still be willing to care for them if they did.
Burma’s military continues to deny allegations of sexual violence as a tactic in a campaign the UN has labelled a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
A supposed investigation posted to the Facebook page of the Tatmadaw True News Information Team in November cleared the Burmese military of any wrongdoing, claiming none of its soldiers had acted improperly in responding to attacks on security force outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Aug 25.
But there is mounting evidence from rights groups and Rohingya witnesses to refute this claim.
“Rape has been a prominent and devastating feature of the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at HRW, said after the release of a report detailing the military’s systematic rape and torture of Rohingya women and girls.
Pramila Patten, the UN special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, echoed Wheeler’s conclusion, saying sexual violence was “being commanded, orchestrated and perpetrated by the Armed Forces of Myanmar.”
In April, Burma joined the ranks of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and South Sudan on a list of 19 countries submitted to the United Nations Security Council regarding sexual violence in armed conflict, which said “brutal sexual assault” had been used as a “calculated tool” against Rohingya Muslims.