An estimated 90% of female Rohingya refugees were raped during the Burmese Military takeover of Rakhine State around nine months ago.
The Burmese military has a long history of using sexual violence as a weapon of war against a range of different ethnic groups. This violence has been catalogued by women’s groups for years, but the international community has done little to nothing about it. The Rohingyas of Rakhine State have been excluded from the recent peace processes and face a range of legal and practical discriminations that leave women particularly vulnerable to such abuses.
When Rohingya lawyer, Ms Razia Sultana spoke at the UN Security Council, she said “the international community, especially the Security Council, has failed us. This latest crisis should have been prevented if the warning signs since 2012 had not been ignored.”
Monsoon rains have washed away basic infrastructure at the camps.
Associate Professor Sara Davies and Professor Jacqui True have developed a dataset that maps the relationship between conflict related deaths and reports of conflict related sexual violence. “We could have predicted the sexual violence perpetrated against Myanmar’s Rohingya people in 2017… our dataset shows that in Myanmar the counts of sexual violence start to increase nearly a year before a spike in conflict.”
Indeed, we know the Burmese military had been raping women during village raids for months prior to the violence of August 2017. Data from the Bangladesh government showed that as the flood of refugees began crossing the border, there was a spike of over fifty percent of pregnant and lactating women. Bangladesh’s Home Minister has reported that up to ninety percent of the female Rohingya refugees had been raped.
A lack of security has meant women and girls at the camps are now being trafficked.
Nine months on from the initial increase in hostilities, the UN reported over 60 births a day in the refugee camps. Razia Sultana is calling for an increase in sexual and reproductive health care. “Despite the acute need, post-rape care, including access to safe abortions and emergency contraception, is critically low in camps.”
Conditions in the camps are dire. Sixty percent of the refugees are women and girls who have unique humanitarian needs. The monsoon rains have washed away basic infrastructure. Lack of safety and security has meant women and girls are now being trafficked and further subjected to opportunistic sexual and gender-based violence.
Of the $951 million needed for the humanitarian response, the international community has only funded twenty one percent. The Australian government is the third highest donor to the crisis, having allocated $46.5 million in aid.
However, Marc Purcell, CEO of the Australian Council for International Development says, “there are still serious funding shortfalls for health, including sexual and reproductive health, and the protection of women and children from abuse and exploitation.” He is calling on the Australian government to help meet that funding shortfall and to call for an end to impunity for the egregious human rights violations.
The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has sought jurisdiction to investigate crimes against the Rohingya. When sexual violence is perpetrated as part of an armed conflict, it is a war crime; when that violence is widespread or systematic, it’s a crime against humanity. Because the violence is being targeted at a specific group of people, it is also being used as a tool of ethnic cleansing and may meet the definition of genocide.
Commitments under the United Nations Security Council women, peace and security agenda oblige countries like Australia to exclude perpetrators of sexual violence from military development opportunities. As Shadow Minister for Defence, Richard Marles recently said, it is now “untenable” for Australia to maintain defence cooperation with an organisation that operates in a manner so contrary to international law. We are obliged to end impunity for these crimes.
Marc Purcell has made it clear, “the Australian Government should commit to ending Australia’s engagement with Myanmar’s military. Australia’s defence engagement with the Tatmadaw must cease until the protection and rights of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar are upheld, and the recent violence in Rakhine State has been investigated.”
Susan Hutchinson is a PhD scholar at the ANU; a member of the Australian Civil Society Coalition on Women, Peace and Security; and architect of the Prosecute Don’t Perpetuate campaign.