General Assembly: Transforming a group disenfranchised for generations

November 30, 2018

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Imagine two-thirds of Manhattan’s population showing up at your doorstep overnight. Yet, Bangladesh responded with all its might. BRAC’s Asif Saleh spoke on Bangladesh’s journey in responding to the Rohingya crisis at this year’s UN General Assembly.

New York, 25 September 2018 – “Rohingya women, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, were the invisible gender of a stateless people, treated like a non-entity. Coming from a very conservative background, majority lacked literacy, generally did not leave the house, and were not involved in decision-making, leadership or income-generating activities. When the crisis erupted, it made them most vulnerable to gender-based violence. And yet, despite these risks, they were the ones who stepped forward first to help others. They mobilised their communities and care for their families, often single-handedly.

Imagine two-thirds of Manhattan’s population showing up at your doorstep overnight!  No one was ready for this scale or this speed. Yet, Bangladesh responded with all its might.

Humanitarian assistance is far more powerful when it is centred around women and delivered by women. That is why BRAC, one of the largest NGOs of the world, tapped into its 46 years of women focused development experience, to support the Govenment of Bangladesh to tackle this disaster.

Let me quickly share three relevant insights from our work this past year.

1. It is important to put women at the centre of the humanitarian work – 80% of the arrivals were women and children.  So our response was led by women as well. Our child-friendly spaces are 99% staffed by women, our teachers and community health workers are 100% women. Our 800 community mobilisation volunteers are all trained by Rohingya women. This all-female workforce are the bridge of trust and reliability.

2. Amid uncertainty, the only way to keep hope alive now is through communication and engagement.  Without hope, people, particularly from the younger generation, are becoming depressed, frustrated and then angry. This is when they are most vulnerable to extremism, trafficking and violence. While the discussion towards a speedy, safe and dignified repatriation is ongoing, Bangladesh needs to plan for the mid-term so that the time spent there is not wasted.  Education needs to be on a path to some level of formalisation. Skill building needs to be on a path to future livelihood.

3. Complex, protracted challenges like the Rohingya crisis need comprehensive solutions for everyone affected including the host community. We need to look at holistic upliftment of the entire region which was already lagging in human development even before this crisis. It has become more important now than ever, as our studies show that negativity towards the refugee community is at an all time high. This is where the role of local NGOs, which have been central to Bangladesh’s women-centred developmental success, would be an asset.

They (1) have a strong understanding of local risks, vulnerabilities, needs, culture and political realities; (2) deliver rapid response, (3) benefit from significant acceptance, trust and access to affected people; (4) promote substantial consistency, learning and engagement of communities in coping with crises, over time, since they are with them before, during, and after crises hit them.

One year into the crisis, there is visible change in the confidence level of Rohingya women. They were too shy to speak but they’ll now look you in the eye, speak confidently to boys and talk in public.  This is a sign that transformation is possible, Let us take this as an opportunity to transform a group that has been disenfranchised for generations. Whether they are in Bangladesh or Myanmar, Rohingyas, particularly the women and girls, should never face such injustice and be deprived of human development like this.”


Asif Saleh is the senior director of strategy, communication and empowerment at BRAC and BRAC International.

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5 years ago

I am TUHIDUL Islam .I’m wannabe a volunteer for rohingha camp. How to do this.