What does self-defense mean for adolescent Rohingya girls?

January 3, 2018

Reading Time: 3 minutes

When the rest of the world relates ‘self-defense’ to learning physical, martial arts skills, what does it mean for young girls from a displaced community, which also happens to be the world’s most persecuted minority? Do they realise that raising voices can be one of the most critical tools in their self-defence kits? Our social workers have begun empowering adolescent girls from the Rohingya community by creating awareness of their own agency.

It was a warm, windy December day in the Kutupalong makeshift settlement in Cox’s Bazar.

Around 20 girls, from 10 to 16 years old, gathered together in a circle on the mats inside one of BRAC’s child-friendly spaces. Voices mingled as they chatted inside the spacious room, waiting for a new day’s session with BRAC’s social workers and counsellors.

Children and adolescents pour into these safe spaces every day, in designated shifts.

Children create art, sing songs, make music, recite and play Burmese folk poetry and games. Adolescents are provided training and counselling on cross-cutting issues, such as sexual reproductive health, awareness on protection issues, and hygiene.

Para-counsellors and psychosocial workers discuss various life skills – empathy, self care, self-esteem, sharing, active listening ears.

Noorjahan, a para-counsellor at BRAC, smiles and sits down with the girls. Selina, a social worker, and Lubna, a PR counsellor, joins in after guiding out the children crowded outside the space, unwilling to accept that it was not their shift right then.

Noorjahan, a BRAC para-counsellor, teaches the power of saying no.

“Today we will talk about safety, and how to strengthen our ability to defend ourselves,” she said in the local Chittagong dialect.

She began by asking the group, “Girls, I want to hear from you, are there times you feel unsafe?”

A few girls hesitantly murmured a ‘yes’.

Noorjahan explained that most of them, especially the older adolescents, were very conservative.

“They are carrying the weight of what they have been through—and are still going through, in addition to their cultural and religious beliefs.”

As the session rolled on, more and more adolescent girls walked into the space, joining the group. The voices were got louder. More girls began to respond to her questions.

“Have any of you ever faced a situation where a boy made you uncomfortable?”

No one said a word.

“Let’s try this question again — with a show of hands.”

Hands around the group started rising.

Noorjahan asked the girls, “So what did we discuss the last time with some of you? What do we do?”

A young girl shyly spoke, “We say no.”

Noorjahan stretched her hand forward, widened her eyes and face, and instructed everyone to follow suit, “We have to reflect through our face how we really feel about this situation. How do we really feel?”

The question was met by some blank stares. A few spoke up – previous participants, Lubna later explained.

Selina, who was well-versed in both the sister dialects, Cox’s Bazar and Rohingya, began to help Noorjahan further:

“Why are we talking about safety? We all have fathers, brothers, future or current husbands, etc. They come close to us. So why are we talking about safety from men?”

“It is because we all recognise and feel a difference when the proximity is unwelcome,” finished Selina.

Noorjahan added, “And that is why we set our boundaries and stand up for ourselves with our voices loudly, NO!”

Everyone stood up as the session reached the end. Noorjahan ran some mock exercises with the girls, practicing with acting volunteers on how to commit to the power of no.

“Learning these skills and practicing them together helps to spread the message better. They talk amongst themselves later, and this helps propagate the knowledge across the settlements,” said Selina.

They laughed, teased each other, and by the end of the session, many more voices piped up—and loudly.

More than half of the population that have fled from the Rakhine state of Myanmar are women and children. They continue to live in the crowded makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar without any sense of safety or certainty.

Over 200 child-friendly spaces across the Rohingya makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazaar double as counselling centres for young women and children. Over 93,000 children have been provided with psychosocial support, and 1,600 adolescent women are regularly participating in sessions.


Dibarah Mahboob is a manager of communications and partnerships of BRAC’s humanitarian crisis management project.

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