Editor’s Note: Ashley Judd is a US actress and activist. She is a Goodwill Ambassador for UNFPA, the United Nations reproductive health and rights agency. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
The Kutupalong refugee camp is situated in Cox’s Bazar, the most southeastern part of Bangladesh, along its border with Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Six months ago, the area was a pristine jungle preserve. Now it is home to more than a half million Rohingya Muslim refugees, who since August have fled rape, torture and murder at the hands of the Myanmar armed forces.
They are, quite rightly, too terrified to return to Myanmar, but they are not allowed to move on, so they sit in a purgatorial limbo.
A heaving, sprawling settlement is fashioned from tarps and bamboo, slapped haphazardly on dusty mud terraces and made up of nearly a million traumatized, persecuted people.
They have almost nothing: no electricity, no paved roads, no sewers. People are reduced to defecating openly – especially the children, who can’t wait for long hours to get to the latrines.
Women and children have to wait after the men, so even if they’ve been in line, men cut in front of them. One might say the conditions could not be worse, but the monsoon season, with its lashing rains, is coming.
While the Rohingya fled to Bangladesh seeking safety, life in the camp is full of dangers, especially for women and girls. Once the sun sets, basic tasks, like going to a toilet, become unsafe: sexual violence can skyrocket in refugee camps.
Hyper-vigilance is required at all times. It is not a good situation for any of the women and girls. Some 34,000 of them are pregnant, either by their husband or because of this epidemic of rape.
Ajida is a Rohingya who walked and waded to Bangladesh while she was pregnant. Four of her children drowned when the boat they were in capsized.
While I held her hands at a maternity clinic, Ajida looked limply at the confusing identify card that says she is from a country that denies her existence and is actively engaging in what has widely been described as the ethnic cleansing of her people. She explained to me that her baby hasn’t moved in months and that she has a terrible burning sensation in her chest.
I met Ajida in my capacity as Goodwill Ambassador for UNFPA, the United Nations reproductive health and rights agency. She was one of hundreds of pregnant women waiting for an urgently needed check-up at a UNFPA-supported reproductive health clinic, and is one of the 47,000 women for whom our health workers have provided vital antenatal care in the past six months.
Patiently waiting for hours, the women with whom I talked, whose babies I held, defied the hell they had lived by maintaining their dignity and composure. It is one thing to cheat death and flee to safety. The determination and resilience required to cross rivers, hills and jungles when pregnant is superhuman.
I spent days in UNFPA’s Women-Friendly Spaces. Discreetly hidden behind high fences, they are oases of calm that provide temporary relief and support for women. They empower women and girls to process the trauma they have faced and to learn about the services that are available to them elsewhere in the camp. Here, women and girls can also sing, dance, do art and gardening, and briefly reconnect with the trauma-free and joyful activities they used to know.
So what can we do? The answer is easy: Care, and show we care. We must put pressure on our governments to support UNFPA to ensure it can continue to carry out its vital work for Rohingya refugees.
With $5, UNFPA can pay for a clean delivery kit, which contains vital supplies like a sterile pad for labor and delivery, so women can give birth in clean conditions within their huts (78% of births are happening at home, outside clinics).
With $15, UNFPA can pay for a dignity kit that provides a woman in a refugee camp with the bare essentials to look after her most basic hygiene needs, such as a washable menstrual pad and clean clothes. And with more money we can pay for more midwives to deliver babies safely, and for more safe spaces for women and girls.
We need to follow the noble lead of Bangladesh, which despite its own challenges has opened its borders and welcomed its persecuted Rohingya neighbors. Locals have shared what little they had with the newcomers to make sure they can eat, drink and survive. And I believe that there are many more nations who want to do their part, too.