Rohingya women: the invisible gender of a stateless people

24 July 2014

Described by the UN as one of “the most persecuted minorities in the world”, the Rohingya people in Burma are victims of state sponsored persecution and extreme racial discrimination. Through denial of citizenship, the Burmese government dehumanises the Rohingya people, and this rejection of their humanity leads to immense breaches of their human rights. This, compounded by the inequalities that women face in their patriarchal society, makes Rohingya women some the most vulnerable and internationally invisible people in the world.

Sex trafficking

The Rohingya population is particularly vulnerable to trafficking because the Government denies them citizenship, meaning that they do not have legal status or identification documents. Rohingya women are repeatedly forced into the sex industry, either lured by promises of a brighter future or violently coerced.

In 2013, there were reports of a Rohingya woman who was kidnapped in Rakhine State and made a sex slave on a military installation.

In this report, the Burma Times details the story of six Rohingya girls who were sold to Indian pimps in Delhi. The girls were used as sex slaves, a typical day for them being to be forced to have sex with around 30 men a day or face horrific beatings. 2 of the girls died as consequence of gang rape.

For more information on human trafficking in Burma please be directed to the Burma Country Narrative of the Trafficking in Persons Report 2014.

Rape and abuse

Rape of Rohingya women is commonplace, and their position renders them powerless to protect themselves or seek justice. In this account a Rohingya woman was gang raped by militants because her husband went into hiding:

“Around 1PM on 6th April 2014, military staying temporarily at Buddhist monastery in the village of Paya-Pyin-Aung-Pa, Buthidaung township, arrested a Rohingya woman (Age 40) hailing from the said village. She was forcibly taken to the monastery. There, they tied her hands and legs. Then, they raped her one after another until midnight.”

Domestic “abuse within families was prevalent and considered socially acceptable…domestic violence was difficult to measure because the government did not maintain statistics” (link to report here).

Rape is a potential problem for all women in Burma, as spousal rape is not legally considered a crime, and many instances of rape outside of matrimony go unpunished, particularly when committed by the military.  Women may even receive further abuse from authorities for “impugning the dignity of the perpetrator” (US Department of State, report linked above). Victims of rape may also be ostracised from their own communities from fear of further violence from security forces should they seek legal aid. The military in Burma has more power than the government, allowing their violence to go unchecked. High military presence in Rakhine state places Rohingya women in the path of their power thirsty, abusive brutality.


A lack of female education and ties to household duties mean that many Rohingya women do not have an understanding of the conflict and persecution policies that dictate their lives. Low female literacy rates are partly due to state policy and partly the fault of tradition: Rohingya students are denied the right to education and female education is not valued.

Family planning

A lack of family planning and sexual subservience to men means that Rohingya women often have large families and are frequently pregnant without adequate funds and healthcare to support this.  The Rohingya Women’s Network said that “In Arakan, 99 percent of the Rohingya women delivered their children at home in unsanitary conditions”. Buddhist nationalists have used the large family sizes to justify religious violence against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya, claiming it to be an effort in a supposed Muslim drive to take over the country – despite the Muslim population only making up 4% (more information here). Their religion is not tolerated, meaning that Rohingya women are not permitted to wear hijab.

In two townships of Northern Rakhine State, a two-child policy against the Rohingya population has been enforced. Subsequent children cannot be registered. This policy has lead to women attempting to perform abortions themselves in unsanitary conditions.

Shockingly, the government of Burma have placed heavy restrictions on international aid provision to Rohingya people. For example, earlier this year, Médecins Sans Frontières was ordered to pull out of Rakhine state and cease its provision of essential healthcare in the area. Ironically, this order also means that Rohingya women are left with no family planning support to be able to adhere to the two child policy.

As Rohingya women do not have citizenship, they are unable to work. International humanitarian agencies are banned from training Rohingya people as health workers, even auxiliary midwives.

Travel restrictions

The Rohingya people are restricted to stay within their own village and must apply for a travel permit if they wish to visit other villages within a restricted area. This has implications for women seeking healthcare, further education possibilities are denied, and women who are forced to move villages when they marry lose family support networks.

How you can help

The current Burmese government is sensitive to the country’s International image (although so far this is evidenced only by the signing of commitments that have yet to be acted upon). Help break the silence on the plight of the Rohingya people by spreading the word and building international pressure.

You can tweet using #Rohingya or #SaveTheRohingya to be part of the movement to demand an end these human rights violations.

Let’s make these people a priority.


Background on the Rohingya people

  • The term “Rohingya” comes from Rohang, the Rohingya word for the state of Arakan (now called Rakhine), from where the Rohingya originate.
  • Some Rohingya have been in Burma for centuries while others arrived more recently. During British colonialism, migrants from Bangladesh were invited to inhabit the sparsely populated Arakan state to meet the need for cheap labour in paddy fields. Rohingya populations grew rapidly, sparking fear and hatred in native Burmese nationalists.
  • In World War 2, Burma was invaded by the Japanese causing the British to retreat. This triggered extreme violence between Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya. The Japanese committed countless acts of rape, murder and torture against thousands of Rohingyas.
  • The area has a history of ethnic cleansing campaigns lead by the military junta. The first of these campaigns in 178, “Operation King Dragon”, resulted in their large scale displacement and destruction.
  • 1982 Citizenship Act excluded Rohingya from Burmese citizenship. Rohingya people are considered illegal immigrants.
  • In 2012, violence in Rakhine state resulted in 250 Rohingya deaths and over 100,000 displaced people. On 10 June 2012, a state of emergency was declared in Rakhine, allowing the military to participate in the administration of the region. The Burmese army and police have been accused of targeting Rohingya Muslims through mass arrests and arbitrary violence.
  • The position of the Rohingya people is so difficult that even pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi  fails to speak out about their plight for fear of losing popular support.
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