Bangladesh: Sanitation among Rohingya women in Kutupalong refugee camp
Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar who for decades have experienced violent persecution in their home country. Over one million Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar in successive waves. The repression by the Myanmar government intensified in 2017, resulting in mass killings, the burning of dozens of villages and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, further increasing the number of people seeking refuge across the border in Bangladesh. Rohingya refugees have primarily settled in Cox’s Bazar district in eastern Bangladesh. Over 600,000 live in the world’s largest refugee camp situated in Kutupalong.
Given the growing number of people living in this border region, key resources have started to become scarce. Overpopulation is exacerbated by environmental problems derived from the growth of the refugee camp, among them the high levels of deforestation in surrounding areas, and the excessive amount of groundwater extracted to supply the growing number of people. Basic infrastructure, which was once capable of coping with the numbers of displaced people, has begun to show signs of serious strain.
One of the multiple challenges faced by Rohingya refugees is access to clean water. Although lack of clean water and sanitation is a generalized problem facing the whole of the Rohingya population in Kutupalong, it affects women and girls especially. Among other things, women and girls require clean water to practise good hygiene, wash clothes and deal with their menstrual cycle.
Mostafa, a 34-year-old Rohingya refugee woman, takes a rest beside a neighbour’s shelter after a long journey to fetch drinking water from a distant tube well, in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: Sahat Zia Hero/ Rohingyatographer.
This case study focuses on the daily experiences of four young Rohingya refugees living in Kutupalong: Rubaida Begum, aged 16; Sanjida, aged 20; Semon, aged 27 and Notiba Khatun, aged 31. These residents of Kutupalong have been living in one of the camp’s many makeshift settlements for five to six years, in family households made up of four to eight family members.
According to the women, water quality depends on where the groundwater is collected and how deep the water level is. In the refugee camp, the same water is re-used to cook, wash clothes, observe personal hygiene and drink. Given the intense use of water in the camp, it is vital that the condition of the water is appropriate for consumption and that it is not contaminated. To supply growing needs, around 15 million litres of groundwater are drawn every day for internal use in Kutupalong camp. The area is therefore under threat of critical water shortage.
Besides this immediate risk, camp residents must also worry about the issue of water collection. All four women interviewed as part of this study mentioned that water collection points are not far from their household, up to a 10-minute walk away from their home. The access route is not free of challenges, however. Thus, Semon points out that the surface of the pathway leading up to the tap is ‘rough’, while Notiba Khatun maintains that during the rainy season, she faces difficulties when collecting water due to the muddy condition of the roads.
Rubaida Begun and Semon also point out that they do not feel safe when collecting water, mainly because they feel exposed to the scrutiny and gossip of men. Notiba Khatun adds: ‘It is much easier to collect water from the water point while wearing my burka.’ The toilets and latrines are located outside the home, which is also inconvenient for the women. When asked if there was a possibility of people not using these services, Semon, 27, explained: ‘Some people don’t use latrines because it’s far away from the household.’ Contamination of water is thus a serious issue in the camp, as reported in a study made by Zahid Hayat Mahmud in 2019, which showed that 73.96 per cent of the water collected from the supplying wells were found to be contaminated with faecal coliform, and 34.5 per cent reported the presence of E. coli.
Bathing spaces are usually situated inside the women’s households, which offers them some degree of safety, particularly when it comes to having showers, washing clothes and, crucially, washing reusable pads for the days of menstruation. Reusable pads and reusable underwear are provided by World Vision, an NGO that also raises awareness of menstrual hygiene and practices.
Sanjida agrees that hygiene awareness in the camp is vital, and she adds: ‘I feel [that] now we have a good knowledge on MHM [menstrual hygiene methods] in Camp as we know how to take care of ourselves during our menstruation.’ Like Sanjida, Notiba Khatun points out that access to water and being able to wash their reusable pads is very important because most women in the camp still feel self-conscious when needing to deal with menstruation in a place shared with men. Sanjida continues: ‘I wash and reuse [my pad] but after reusing it I bury it. I don’t like throwing them in the waste bin because if men see them, it is a matter of shyness for us.’ This shows again the nature of the relationships between women and men in the community, and the fact that hygiene is viewed as a delicate topic.
To be able to wash clothes and clean reusable pads inside the home in a safe and dignified way is an important intersectional issue, cutting across several women’s rights.
In March of 2023, a major fire broke out in Camp 11 in Cox’s Bazar, which resulted in the destruction of 2,000 shelters, as well as the facilities available in that area. This disaster has made the situation related to access to water considerably more difficult. Local Rohingya photographer Mohammed Shaker states: ‘We lost everything. We are only left with what we had on our bodies.’ In addition to the shelters, the fire destroyed the water collection points, the toilets and latrines, and bathrooms.
The women now need to collect water at points that are eight to ten minutes away from where they used to collect it. This has led to an increase in the number of people collecting water at the same point, exacerbating the shortage of water. Lack of water to put out the fire also points to underlying problems concerning the vulnerability of refugee populations such as the Rohingya community in Cox’s Bazar, who had no available water to control the flames.
The story of the young women of Kutupalong camp shows that access to water in refugee camps is a matter not only of health and basic needs, but also of safety and dignity. To be able to wash clothes and clean reusable pads inside the home in a safe and dignified way is an important intersectional issue, cutting across several women’s rights. Denying women access to clean water poses multiple threats, including the exacerbation of gender-based violence and ethnic discrimination, and increased vulnerability to major disasters, such as the March 2023 fire.
The basic right to water is at risk of being violated in Kutupalong. The experiences of these four Rohingya women, coupled with the recent devastation by fire, expose a lack of provision for minority refugees in Bangladesh, and the inadequacy of support and relief mechanisms available to the young women of Kutupalong.
Rohingya refugee women and men collecting their water from a water point in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: Sahat Zia Hero/ Rohingyatographer.