One year on unfpa's response to the rohingya refugee crisis in bangladesh

This week marks a year since the Rohingya people of Rakhine State in Myanmar began fleeing across the border into Bangladesh, creating the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. Thousands of these refugees were women who were pregnant. Thousands were women and girls escaping violence.

Amid the calls for food, shelter and medicine, we asked our supporters to stop and think about the specific needs of women and girls, needs that are often overlooked in the first rush of humanitarian response. And it’s because you listened, and understood, and trusted us, that we were able to reach thousands of women and girls, getting them the essential items and support they needed in those desperate times.

At the beginning of the crisis your support meant that we could immediately purchase and distribute UNFPA’s trademark Dignity Kits, with simple things like clean underwear, soap and sanitary napkins. For women moving their entire families across the border, the last thing they needed was to feel shame just for being women. So far, 114,000 women have received these kits.

Women Friendly Spaces are always a top priority for UNFPA’s humanitarian response amid any disaster or conflict, but they are expensive. The Rohingya camps were erected in what used to be forest, and the buildings had to be constructed from scratch. The funds you provided, and the speed with which you provided them, meant that we could build these safe spaces – which Rohingya refugees call “shanti khana” or “homes of peace” --and give all women a place to talk to one of our caseworkers, talk with other women, or just have some quiet time on their own. Our 20th Women Friendly Space in Cox’s Bazar District is almost complete, and hundreds of women use the spaces every single day.

Your support let us bring in mental health and psychosocial support experts and gender experts when it’s most crucial – both immediately after a crisis as well as later when post-traumatic stress flares up. These experts have now trained hundreds of caseworkers from Bangladesh and within the Rohingya community itself in mental health and psychosocial support services. Our local caseworkers have achieved the highest level of qualification possible without a formal tertiary degree, and we require this for staff to work in our facilities. Our experts are always on hand to help with complicated cases. The system that was put in place early means that thousands of women have already begun to recover from trauma, and can look to the future and face its challenges better.

Of the 700,000 people who have arrived in Bangladesh since last August, almost 30,000 have been pregnant women. An entire generation has already been born in the world’s largest refugee camp. Your help meant we could hire and deploy almost 100 trained midwives to make sure both mothers and babies would not just survive, but thrive. To date, 3,800 babies have been born in UNFPA-supported clean, safe, private facilities. Our midwives are our frontline workers, but they are supported by doctors, obstetricians and gynaecologists who perform emergency caesareans and advise on complicated cases. We’ve brought in pharmacists as well, to manage the huge volume of medicines that are needed.

We’ve recruited 130 community health workers - many of them traditional midwives - to go into their communities, identify pregnant women and counsel them and their families on the benefits of giving birth with a qualified midwife. These volunteers are already respected leaders in their communities, and are responsible for saving so many lives by getting women to the clinics. Our volunteer programme, where volunteers receive an allowance for their work, will triple over the coming months. There are still thousands of women giving birth at home, which exposes them and their babies to extra risk - we want to reach all of them.

UNFPA is a rights-based agency, and choice is at the centre of all that we do. We provide all pregnant women with a Clean Delivery Kit, so that if they are unable to get to a clinic or otherwise decide to give birth at home, they will have clean sheets, towels and even a sterilized blade to cut the umbilical cord. When new babies arrive, mothers are given a Mama Kit, which includes cotton baby clothes, a blanket, diapers and hygiene products for the mother. We want the arrival of a new baby to be a celebration, and not a financial burden.

Our community volunteers, health workers, and psychosocial experts work with men as well to overcome long-held patriarchal attitudes that prevent their wives and daughters from exercising their rights. Your support has allowed us to be able to offer a full range of contraception options to women in the camps as well as in the host community, including for new mothers. Each month more and more women are choosing to take contraceptive measures, and more and more men are supporting them in their choice.

Today we pay tribute to the resilience of Rohingya women in Bangladesh, as well as to their hosts in the surrounding communities whose lives have also changed significantly in the past year. We want to continue to help these strong women become even stronger.

The scale of our response has been unprecedented - we are a small agency with a very clear focus. We’ve taken on leadership roles in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Gender-Based Violence within the UN. Our determined response was only possible because our friends put trust in us. We recognise that reproductive health and gender-based violence programs are sensitive, and the results are sometimes less obvious or immediate than other programmes that you could have chosen to support, especially in the initial phase. We would like to sincerely thank you for putting women and girls at the forefront of this response.

Ultimately, this is a protracted crisis – it will require a consistent, long-term response in partnership with other agencies, donors and of course Friends of UNFPA. The Rohingya refugee crisis is of such a magnitude, the suffering so immense and intense, that it requires our shared humanity to ensure we can reach out to fellow human beings and alleviate at least some of this suffering in the spirit of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda whose overarching pledge is to leave no one behind.

Ensuring human rights is part of our responsibility as a human. You have contributed to changes the world needs.