By Nusrat Daud Pritha, CARE Bangladesh
Hot, arid, humid, muddy; the situation in the Myanmar refugee camps in Bangladesh change drastically in a day. It changes so rapidly that it is hard to tell there were pouring rains even 20 minutes ago. In the land that is marked by blue, orange and white make-shift shelters, most of the men and children are outside their houses during day because the temperature within the shelters make it unbearable to stay indoors. But most women and young girls feel obligated to stay indoors due to cultural norms. For many women and girls, a green big shelter, surrounded by green fencing is a symbol of peace. These are women specific communal areas, commonly known as Shantir Ghor (house of peace) among the women and as Women Friendly Space (WFS) among humanitarian organizations. CARE operates 5 WFSs across various camps in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar.
Noor Hasina is a regular visitor to WFS-5 in Jamtoli, Camp 15, which opened in May this year. Compared to her 17 X 12 feet tarpaulin shelter, WFS is a big open space; it is cooler, it is peaceful, she can rest here and most importantly she can sew clothes here. For Hasina and most other refugee women, a communal space only for women is something they are experiencing for the first time. She informs that for the last ten years, no men or women would travel in pairs for groups, “Even for collecting water, we could not go in pairs. We could stay in groups indoors, but this was not allowed outside. We feared being attacked if we travelled in pairs or groups.”
As part of protection of women and girls and addressing gender based violence (GBV), CARE has set up 5 WFSs and 2 information booths. The WFS provide a space for women to find refuge, rebuild community, seek GBV related and other counselling as required. Materials for recreational activities including indoor games and trainings are also available in these centers. The direct outreach till date is over 29,000 women across the 5 WFSs. For the open space and for the gaming activities, young women, adolescent girls and young children also enjoy coming to the WFS. WFS-5 added five sewing machines so that women are able to make dresses for themselves and their families.
Noor Hasina is a mother of two young daughters. She lost her husband in the 16 days’ journey to Bangladesh; she assumes he is no longer alive. After losing her husband in the journey for asylum, the counselling sessions at the WFS really helped her a lot. It helped her talk about her grief and find a way to overcome them. One of the way she channels her grief is through sewing. “Life is not easy in the camps. It is hot, we worry about our safety, and we have to go to collect rations, cook and look after the children. But when I am here, sewing, I forget all my worries, all my losses. I feel happy”, she said with a spark in her eyes and a big smile. Hasina learned sewing back in Myanmar. An UN agency ran training programs for women in Myanmar and Hasina picked up the skill from there. With the sewing machines in the WFS, she makes clothes for herself, her children, and other family members. Since May, she has already made 10 pieces of clothing. Life as a woman was not exactly easy back in Myanmar. Hasina tells she was married at a very young age. It has been very difficult for her and it is difficult for most other girls. Being a mother of two daughters, Hasina has big dreams for them, “In Myanmar, women are married at a very young age, and for this they face many difficulties. I don’t want my daughters to face that. I want them to study and grow up and do some proper job before they get married.”