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Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Myanmar Female Muslim Refugees Run Out of Hope

Originally published on Women's eNews

At the end of our visit to the camp for internally displaced people, we thanked the women for sharing their stories. But then they said: visitors come, we talk to them, they listen, leave. Nothing changes for us.

In Myanmar's largest city of Yangon, at a conference bringing together women from around the country, women spoke confidently of their vision for a better future and their role in the political process.

But only a few hundred miles away, in the state of Rakhine, the second poorest in the country, in a crowded camp for families driven from their villages by ethnic and religious violence, the women feared for their lives and their uncertain future.

 The situation for these people is so dire that a U.N. official could only say, “Not only is there no light at the end of the tunnel, there is no tunnel.”

A small group of us, six women and one man, came to Myanmar–formerly Burma–to attend a two-day conference sponsored in part by Columbia University and USAID and to visit the women of Rakhine. We were a delegation from the Women's Refugee Commission to assess women's participation in the country's transition to democracy. The trip offered some startling contrasts.

More than 300 women gathered in Yangon to discuss such topics as women's security, health, peace building and conflict prevention; critical in a country with more than 60 years of war and more than a dozen areas of ongoing fighting. U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell stressed the need for women to work together and create a broad women's network to break down ethnic and religious boundaries.

The challenges the country faces on this issue only became apparent to us as after we left behind the razzle-dazzle of Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, with its 14 acres of gilded temples and Buddhas with flashing neon halos, and flew an hour north to visit camps near Sittwe in Rakhine for internally displaced people.

Different Reality

Here, on a dusty plain, dozens of flimsy bamboo houses were erected in April for the 140,000 Muslims who were forced to flee from their villages last year to escape the violence from their Buddhist neighbors. We met with a group of nine Rohingya women and sat together on the floor, shoes left at the door as is the custom here. They told us stories of their eviction from their homes, many of which were burned to the ground. People drowned as they tried to escape in boats. One woman said she was one of only three survivors from a group of 100. She was quiet during our visit, staring off into the distance.

Read the full article on Women's eNews.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence