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Rohingya Women Aren’t Just Refugees—They’re Leaders
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Rohingya Women Aren’t Just Refugees—They’re Leaders

Rohingya women are getting political.

In June 2018, the Shalbagan refugee camp in Bangladesh, home to 41,000 Rohingya—the Muslim minority group that fled genocide in Myanmar—became the first of 30 new camps to elect leaders. When the results were tallied, organizers at the United Nations Refugee Agency and The Adventist Development and Relief Agency International, which spearheaded the vote, were pleasantly surprised to learn female refugees had won half of the 12 volunteer seats. “I’ve always been interested in helping out, so when I got the chance to run, I did,” says Rehana Akhter, 35, one of the newly elected members. “This has never happened before in our society!”

Gender parity in politics would be good news anywhere, but especially for Rohingya women, who along with their children make up 80 percent of the refugee population yet rarely held jobs or participated in community affairs back home. “Women didn’t lead back in Myanmar. Even if we’d wanted to, our society doesn’t allow for it,” Akhter says. “But in Bangladesh, the prime minister [Sheikh Hasina] is a woman, so we are seen differently here.”

The elections weren’t an easy win. Many men in the camps were outraged that women like Akhter were chosen as block leaders over them. “How can the women lead us when they have never taken charge of anything in their lives?” complains Abdus Salam, a former leader who wasn’t reelected. “Our women don’t do this kind of work.”

Block leader Romeda Begum inside a children’s learning center, where disabled children spend the day with various nonprofit organizations. Begum is responsible for making sure these programs are carried out everyday.
JAMSHED SHAKIL JOY

Credit: Marie Darie

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