Myanmar refugee women: A space for hope

Noor Hasina is a regular visitor to CARE's women-friendly space in Jamtoli refugee camp in Bangladesh

Hot, arid, humid, muddy: the situation in the Myanmar refugee camps in Bangladesh changes drastically in a day.

It changes so rapidly that it is hard to tell there were pouring rains even 20 minutes ago.

In the camps of make-shift shelters, most of the men and children are outside during day because the temperature within the shelters makes it unbearable to stay indoors. But most women and girls feel obliged to stay indoors due to cultural norms.

For many women and girls, a big green shelter, surrounded by green fencing, is a symbol of peace.

These women-friendly spaces (as humanitarian organisations call them) are commonly known as Shantir Ghor (house of peace) among the women who live in the camps.

Noor Hasina using a sewing machine in Bangladesh refugee camp
Noor Hasina using one of the sewing machines provided at the CARE women-friendly space

CARE operates five women-friendly spaces across various camps in Cox’s Bazar. Noor Hasina is a regular visitor to the women-friendly space in Jamtoli, Camp 15, which opened in May this year.

Compared to her 17 X 12 feet tarpaulin shelter, this 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 says that for the last 10 years, no men or women would travel in pairs or groups, “even for collecting water”:

We could stay in groups indoors, but this was not allowed outside. We feared being attacked if we travelled in pairs or groups.

The women-friendly spaces set up by CARE provide a space for women to find refuge, rebuild community, seek advice and support on gender-based violence, and other counselling as required. Materials for recreational activities including indoor games and training sessions are also available in these centres.

The women-friendly space in Jamtoli also provides five sewing machines so that women are able to make clothes for themselves and their families. Hasina learned sewing back in Myanmar. A UN agency ran training programmes for women in Myanmar and Hasina picked up the skill from there. Since May this year, using the sewing machines in the women-friendly space, she has already made 10 pieces of clothing.

Noor Hasina holding a garment that she made in Bangladesh refugee camp
Noor Hasina holding one of the garments that she made at the CARE women-friendly space

Noor Hasina is a mother of two young daughters. She lost her husband in the 16-day journey to Bangladesh; she assumes he is no longer alive. The counselling sessions at the women-friendly space have helped her talk about her grief and find a way to manage it. One of the way she channels her grief is through sewing. She says:

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.

Life as a woman was not exactly easy back in Myanmar. Hasina tells us she was married at a very young age. Life has been difficult for her and it is difficult for most other girls. Despite this, Hasina has big dreams for her two daughters. She says:

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.

Story and photos by Nusrat Daud Pritha, CARE Bangladesh.

Noor Hasina with her two daughters in Bangladesh refugee camp
Noor Hasina with her two young daughters in the CARE women-friendly space

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.