The nationwide lockdown in Bangladesh wasn’t enough to keep the virus out. And then on May 14, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed inside the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, home to nearly 900,000 Rohingya — stoking fears of a rapid spread through the densely populated settlements and surrounding neighborhoods.
UNICEF and other UN agencies have stepped up assistance efforts in the refugee camps and host communities, setting up health facilities for isolating and treating patients and shoring up water and sanitation systems. Early on in the crisis, UNICEF and partners installed handwashing stations and launched an emergency information campaign to communicate risks of the disease and benefits of certain response measures like sheltering in place.
For some, sheltering in place to stay safe from disease increases risks of gender-based violence
But for many Rohingya and Bangladeshi women and girls, staying inside and out of sight brings another kind of danger: an increased risk of gender-based violence, including intimate partner violence and sexual exploitation.
Gender-based violence (GBV), one of the most pervasive yet least visible human rights violation in the world, often surges in a crisis, as deprivations mount, stress piles on and social support systems fracture. The current pandemic is no different, experts warn — even as the reporting of such incidents declines in some places.
The problem is that the perpetrator is often a member of the victim's own family, a close friend or neighbor. For Rohingya refugees and others with limited means of reaching out for help — no mobile phone, no privacy — the situation can seem even more helpless, explains Shumi, a manager of a UNICEF-supported Safe Space for Women and Girls in one of the Cox's Bazar camps.
UNICEF services for vulnerable women and girls are still available — even during lockdown
Before the pandemic, there were 15 Safe Space centers in the district providing group counseling and other services for victims and survivors of gender-based violence, trafficking, child marriage and other harmful practices. With Bangladesh in lockdown, these centers have had to temporarily close their doors, and suspend all group activities.
But support services for individuals — new and existing survivors of gender-based violence — are still available, notes Gertrude Mubiru, a UNICEF Gender-Based Violence Specialist.
Informational home visits can provide a lifeline for those in need
Volunteers are making regular house visits to share information about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, while respecting physical distancing guidelines. These interactions provide an opportunity to spread the word about the other support services that are available — and how to access them — including services for survivors of GBV. There are case workers still on the job and available to help individual women and girls in need.
“People are afraid because they fear services and care will stop," Shumi says, "but we are still here."
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Top photo: A Rohingya refugee and her baby photographed on the shores of Bangladesh in August 2017, shortly after crossing by boat from Myanmar to escape genocidal violence. UNICEF and partner agencies are warning that Rohingya women and girls, among other vulnerable groups, face a higher risk of gender-based violence during the pandemic lockdown. © UNICEF/UN0156977/Bindra