by Pia Conradsen, Asia Justice and Rights
In 1981, the UN voiced concern over continued disregard and infringement of the right to freedoms of thought, conscience and religion, asserting that states must do more to stop hate crimes and promote interfaith initiatives. This was made clear in the General Assembly Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief.
On this day, 22 August, we commemorate the International Day of Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief to combat intolerance, discrimination and violence against people by promoting religious tolerance and cultural diversity.
Despite these declarations, the world continues to watch on as Myanmar security forces commit abuses against Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group, in the name of religion. On 25 August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled from Myanmar to seek refuge in Bangladesh, joining the already constrained camps home to 1 million refugees. Victims have included men, women, children and the elderly. They were not only subject to physical violence and abuses, but other forms of exclusion, restriction and preference based on religion. Women recalled some of the discrimination they faced in Myanmar:
“Even though some of us have higher education, we [Rohingya] couldn’t get such opportunities compared to others, they discriminated us in every sector. We thought if we reached university level we could get a job or other opportunities, but the reality was the opposite. An election was held in 2010. We thought the election could solve our previous problems and achieve equality as we faced many restrictions. After the election, the scenario completely changed, they imposed more restrictions than before.”
Women faced further exclusion, especially felt in the education sector:
“As Muslim women, we have to wear a hijab once we reach 12 according to our religion. But the government restricted us to practice our religious customs after class 4. Therefore, Rohingya women could not go to school if they wore a hijab, that’s why most of the Rohingya women are uneducated. To attend school only up to class 4, our life cannot be successful.”
While they are safe from the violence and discrimination they were subjected to in Myanmar, Rohingya women are particularly marginalized and vulnerable, and continue to have limited rights in Bangladesh. Even in the camps, access to education for women and their children remains a challenge:
“Now, we are staying in the camp. We have our own shelter but our children have lost their education. Here the schools only give basic education like “A is for Apple”. Our children will grow up uneducated, and I think about their future.”
The government prohibits teaching Rohingya children using the Bangladeshi curriculum and Myanmar does not recognize its school curriculum used in inside the camp. Since 2017, the response has constructed around 3,000 small temporary bamboo ‘learning centers’ that accommodate up to 40 children at a time. Most children who attend are under the age of 11, and fewer than 4 perfect of children above 14 receive any education. There is no prospect for formal, recognized and quality education for children, and it is even more difficult for adult women to receive further educations and training.
Rohingya women are sharing their stories to AJAR on how they hope to improve their situation in Bangladesh and change the narrative of the acute education crisis they faced in Myanmar where generations have been deprived to access education. AJAR has been collecting their stories and demands through action research using art to send a message to the world how the sorrows of past memories can be balanced with action for building a better future. This research culminated in an exhibition ‘Quilt of Memory and Hope: Stories of Rohingya Women Survivors’ bringing women’s individual stories embroidered together in ‘quilts’ as one collecting voice.
Now, women are seeing their life in the camps as an opportunity to learn in schools, learning centers and community-led groups that was previously denied to them due to their religion and ethnicity:
“Women are not allowed to work outside of their homes or communities, but I want to learn to read so I can work. In Bangladesh I am safe, but I always think about my relatives who are in Myanmar. I think that education and independence can really empower ourselves.”
“Education is the backbone of a nation. I am a part of this backbone as I am a school teacher. I teach my students about the importance of learning, what is right and wrong and many other lessons. I draw this pen and book as a symbol of myself and what we can achieve with them.”
These women who experienced mass killings and other unimaginable sufferings are telling us how they can cope and finally realise their dreams. As we commemorate International Day of Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, let us listen to their demands of rights that have been denied for so long. Let us speak up any opportunity to heal, unite and create pathways to fulfil these rights. Let us create a new future, one free of discrimination, restriction and exclusion.