“Many people think we are economic migrants. But we are not. We are refugees, we have been fleeing our country to save our lives.” -- Sharifah Shakirah, Founder of Rohingya Women Development Network
Begum*’s last memory in her village in Rakhine State, Myanmar was women and girls being raped and slaughtered by the military.
So, at eighteen years old she set off to Malaysia. Her only shot for a future, even in a foreign land among strangers.
She and more than half a million Rohingyas were forced to flee from their homes in 2016 due to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. She first ended up in the nearest country of Bangladesh before continuing her journey to Thailand, then Malaysia.
The journey itself was not free from violence and harassment.
Begum stayed on a vessel that carried around 900 people for four months. “They [the smugglers] used to abduct women at night and molest them...We were also harassed. We tried to protect ourselves, unfortunately, we were still raped...We had to obey them even if we didn’t want to...We could only save our lives,” she recalled the traumatic moments.
Not only the women but men were also physically abused. They were not allowed to go to the toilet and were given salty (sea) water to drink. People had died from diseases, such as diarrhoea, and bodies of the dead were thrown to the sea.
A New Life
Today, Begum started to rebuild her life in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. However, the road is still rough.
The country has welcomed nearly 173,800 refugees and asylum seekers (registered) as of May 2019. They came from many countries, including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, they don’t have the right to work.
It was through the Rohingya Women Development Network (RWDN) that Begum found a way to re-establish her life. It is the first women-led group in Malaysia to give Rohingya women refugees a platform to empower themselves and speak up for their rights.
The organisation was founded in 2016 by Sharifah Shakirah, a Rohingya refugee herself. It aims to provide a safe space for women refugees to talk about their problems, feelings and solve them together. RWDN becomes a place for the women to socialize, get an education and educate fellow women. It also provides skills training, so women could develop trade and earn income, which then would contribute to their family.
Sharifah herself first arrived in Southeast Asia 20 years ago. She was illegally smuggled from Myanmar via Thailand and reunited with her father and siblings in Kuala Lumpur.
For her activism to advocate Rohingya women’s rights, the outspoken 25-year-old has now been the first non-Malaysian to be nominated for the International Women of Courage Award by the US State Department.
Rising to stability
Begum has now earned an income by selling earrings that she designs. She acquired the skill from attending RWDN’s livelihood classes. Her earrings are sold on RWDN’s website with 50% going to Begum. In a month, Begum could earn about RM500 (US$120) to RM600 (US$144).
Her husband even supported her, which is rare in a conservative and patriarchal Rohingya society. He is proud of Begum’s skills. The money she earned was able to send their children to school and her husband could even send some money for his parents who are in a Bangladesh refugee camp.
Begum hopes that the Malaysian government will grant refugees some basic human rights, such as education, work, and access for medical treatments.
In the meantime, Begum and other Rohingya women have found a place to socialise and educate themselves through RWDN. They learn new skills, English, study the Quran and most importantly they discover their rights.
“If our girls and women are uneducated and unable to contribute along with the men, the atrocities that we are facing will not end,” Begum says.
She also wishes that her daughters could have the best of opportunities and live up to their full potential.
*Begum is not her real name
Watch the video to see how Begum crawls out of the horrors into the light
This story was first published on Our Better World.