Content warning: sexual violence
Despite rampant criminalization of abortion around the world, the international community tends to agree on one thing: an exception in cases of rape or incest. Even in the United States, where abortion is a hotly debated political issue, a majority of Americans support legalized abortion in cases where the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. Most people agree that women should not have to be doubly traumatized by being forced to carry a pregnancy conceived through violence. Yet in Myanmar and Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees have little choice but to do just that.
Since August 2017, a military campaign of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar’s Rakhine State has forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee their homes, causing the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world. As one of many ethnic minorities in Myanmar, the Rohingya numbered nearly one million in early 2017. But the government of Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, refuses to recognize the Rohingya Muslims as citizens of Myanmar,instead viewing them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and have been embarking on a systematic campaign of violence to drive them out of Myanmar. Through killings, rapes, capricious arrests, and widespread arsons, Myanmar security forces are committing what the international community is increasingly recognizing as a genocide against the Rohingya people.
Now, more than 900,000 refugees are seeking safety in Bangladesh. Most of these refugees are women and girls who have lost male friends, relatives, and community members to the horrific violence. Thousands of these Rohingya women and girls have been sexually assaulted and violently abused, as the military has made widespread sexual violence central to its campaign of ethnic cleansing. The United Nations and humanitarian organizations recorded over 6,000 incidents of sexual violence in the first seven months of the crisis, which is almost certainly an underestimate.
In addition to the trauma wrought by violence, persecution, and displacement, many women are now faced with unplanned pregnancies and struggle to access reproductive care. Authorities in Myanmar have denied the Rohingya basic rights and services, so survivors of sexual violence are often unaware of or barred from treatment options. Though Bangladeshi law permits abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and after that when the mother’s life is in danger, many Rohingya refugees discover their pregnancies too late or are unable to access abortion services.
Devastated by violence, living in precarity, and faced with unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, some Rohingya refugees are turning to extreme measures to induce abortion. They may not want to bring a child into a world colored by violence or raise a baby in the conditions of a refugee camp. They may not wish to bear the child of their rapist(s). They may be influenced by the cultural stigma against rape victims, unwed mothers, and fatherless children. Whatever their motivations, many women in the camps are attempting late-term abortions without medical supervision, risking their lives in the process.
Uma Suleiman, a 30-year-old widow and mother of five, became pregnant with a sixth child after Burmese soldiers gang-raped her at knifepoint. She and her children sought refuge in Bangladesh, where she learned of her pregnancy when she began showing around the five-month mark. She purchased pills from a camp dispensary that promised to induce early labor, but they only made her vomit. Now, Uma has a three-month-old baby that she is unable to name. “I didn’t want this baby,” she told reporters, explaining that to name him would be to normalize the atrocities committed against her.
Physicians with the medical non-profit Doctors Without Borders report that their clinics routinely treat women who have experienced incomplete abortions. “By the time they come to seek help, they’re almost about to die—they’re bleeding heavily or suffering severe infections,” a midwife told Los Angeles Times reporters, explaining that some women die of septic shock. After surviving unspeakable violence, Rohingya refugees are dying from being denied reproductive choice.
Humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders and and Ipas offer a glimpse of hope. Through establishing clinics and increasing access to medical services, these agencies are reducing maternal deaths from self-induced abortion. Ipas alone has trained more than 75 health providers and established reproductive health services at more than 30 facilities within the camps. They are also working to ensure that women can access safe abortion, called “menstrual regulation” in Bangladesh.
Despite this empowering work, the need for both direct services and legal advocacy remains critical. Rape is a common weapon in times of violence, and the trauma it causes can reverberate for generations. As long as we continue to restrict the agency that survivors of sexual violence can have over their own bodies and reproductive lives, we remain complicit in the trauma that they face.
– Anna Katz, Communications Intern