Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, is the longest natural sea beach in the world, stretching 120 kilometres along the Bay of Bengal. It has a national park, where wild elephants still roam, and a safari park with lions, crocodiles and Bengal tigers.
If you keep travelling south along the beach, you’ll find the world’s largest refugee camp. Multi-coloured tents cover sand dunes and freshly cleared forest, accommodating close to one million Rohingya people seeking asylum from neighbouring Myanmar.
The Rohingya began arriving in August last year, following what the United Nations has described as the ethnic cleansing of their people. They’re not being persecuted in the camp, but they also aren’t allowed to leave it, or to look for work in Bangladesh. Nor can they return to their home villages, many of which have been burnt to the ground. Many also continue to struggle to have their basic needs met (access to clean water and hygiene facilities, safe shelter, sufficient food, education and healthcare).
In April this year, Monash Gender Peace and Security Centre (GPS) worked with Plan International to reach one of the least visible and most vulnerable groups in the camp – adolescent girls aged 10 to 19. The subsequent report is the first dedicated to understanding the needs of these girls who are usually overlooked by humanitarian agencies and by their own community leaders, being neither children nor adult women.
“They have very unique needs and very unique experiences oftentimes,” says Monash politics lecturer Dr Eleanor Gordon, who helped write Adolescent Girls in Crisis: Voices of the Rohingya.
Dr Gordon is also a member of Monash GPS, which she says “has been involved in developing the research tools and the training for staff” who interviewed the girls.
Hannah Jay went to Cox’s Bazar to help conduct the interviews and was also a contributing author along with fellow GPS member Associate Professor Katrina Lee-Koo, who has led on a number of collaborations with Plan International investigating the needs and capabilities of adolescent girls in protracted emergencies across the world.
What did they find in Cox’s Bazar?
“I think what was most shocking was the limited freedom of movement of the adolescent girls,” Dr Gordon says.
Most were confined to their tents, which were “stiflingly hot, almost unbearable”. They were sometimes required to fetch water or firewood, but only 28 per cent attended school. Their virtual imprisonment was largely due to family concern that the girls would be unsafe in the crowded camp, where they were surrounded by strangers.
But Dr Gordon says cultural factors also play a part. It’s largely accepted that adolescent girls “should not freely mingle as boys might”.
Their invisibility and isolation made it difficult for the researchers to gain access to the girls. But when they did, they received the clear message that the girls missed their friends, that they derived strength from whatever peer support they could find – and that they wanted to go to school.
More than 75 per cent of the girls said they had no ability to make decisions about their lives. Yet despite their powerlessness, the report also shows that the girls play a crucial role in the camps.
“They are instrumental to the resilience of families and communities,” Dr Gordon says.
“They often have to leave school because they have to … earn money in a small way, or get married in order to help provide for the family. But more than that, they are providing moral support to their siblings and their friends.”
The Rohingya research project is one of four about the plight of displaced adolescent girls that have been or are being implemented by Monash GPS for Plan International. Voices from South Sudan reports on the conditions of South Sudanese girls within South Sudan and Uganda.
A draft report has also been written on the girls from the Lake Chad area – in Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon, where Plan operates. Another report will be published later this year about the displaced Syrian girls in Beirut and Cairo.
Although the political challenges facing each of the groups are different, all the girls in these areas are caught up in protracted, complex emergencies with no clear end in sight.
Most of the girls have witnessed horrific violence, and many have been forced to marry young, even as children (a practice most of the girls believe is wrong, but which they are powerless to change).
Those who are displaced are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and sometimes abduction; this was particularly prevalent among South Sudanese girls. Food and clean water is scarce throughout the camps, and they’re often denied healthcare.
Yet even in these extreme conditions, girls talked about their hopes for self-improvement – a thirst for education was a common theme. All the girls recognised that expanding their knowledge and acquiring practical skills would help them find work and earn money. But generally speaking, the surveyed girls tended to value education for its own sake “as a form of empowerment, beyond the means to an end”, Dr Gordon says.
This desire demonstrates the resilience of the girls, and also shows what steps can be taken to improve their circumstances – in the camps and in whatever life awaits them in the future, she says.
Research shows that in the aftermath of conflict it can be possible “to renegotiate the way people interact, to question the way things were done before, to question why certain people have access to certain rights but other people don’t”.
“They are instrumental to the resilience of families and communities.”
Life in the camps is hellish, but humanitarian agencies working with displaced communities might have the chance “to begin to raise awareness about the importance of protecting and promoting women’s and girls’ rights”.
By drawing attention to the strength and hopes of the girls, Dr Gordon hopes the reports will “have an impact on humanitarian work, and also on the ways in which adolescent girls are perceived”.
“They have agency, skills, knowledge, and they should be engaged directly in informing the interventions that are ostensibly there to help them.”
The reports are clear-eyed about the immense challenges facing the girls, but don’t portray them as victims.
“I was really struck, looking through all the interviews and the surveys, despite everything that they have suffered, and continue to suffer, and all the trauma that they have witnessed and experienced – invariably they would say that their greatest strength, or the thing they are most proud of, is helping others,” Dr Gordon says.
“Helping their younger brother or sister, or helping their mum, helping their neighbours. And that’s quite incredible, really. I don’t know that if you asked the same question of many of the people that we live amongst, that they would be so generous in spirit.”
This kind of altruism is admirable in itself, and is also “critical to any peace-building endeavour”, she says.
“In any effort to rebuild a community after crisis, whether it’s disaster displacement or conflict”, a willingness to help “to put others before yourself and see the bigger picture”, is “often lost in formal, humanitarian efforts to rebuild communities”.
“We can learn a lot, from these adolescent girls,” Dr Gordon said.