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Sexual Violence, Trauma, and Neglect Physicians for Human Rights Observations of Health Care Providers Treating Rohingya Survivors in Refugee Camps in Bangladesh

 Category: Healthcare, Reports, Sexual Violences  Publisher: Physicians for Human Rights  Published: 22 October 2020  Tags: Mental HealthMyanmar GenocideRapeRohingyaRohingya RefugeesSexual Violence |  Download


In August 2017, the armed forces of Myanmar (Tatmadaw) unleashed a campaign of widespread and systematic attacks on the country’s Rohingya communities, escalating previous episodes of violent human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya population. The United Nations (UN) and multiple human rights groups documented that Myanmar security forces committed rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, forced nudity, genital mutilation and other forms of violence targeting sexual organs, sexual assault, and threats and attempts at rape and sexual assault, followed by the killing of victims. In numerous instances, survivors recounted being forced to witness the rape or sexual assault of family or community members. Following what the Myanmar government called “clearance operations,” more than 720,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Analyses of these atrocities suggest that sexual violence is a deliberate strategy used by the Tatmadaw to intimidate, terrorize, punish, and forcibly displace the Rohingya civilian population from their land.

For more than 15 years, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented the persecution of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar. In 2017 and 2018, PHR carried out forensic examinations of survivors and gathered qualitative and quantitative data corroborating the serious human rights violations committed against the Rohingya in August 2017.

Few studies have documented the experience of Rohingya refugees through the lens of the people who cared for them in Bangladesh – doctors, nurses, mental health experts, and other health professionals. PHR sought the perspective of health care workers in order to provide an independent corroboration of the patterns of violence sustained by the Rohingya community.

PHR interviewed 26 health care workers from a variety of disciplines who spent time in Bangladesh after August 2017 and worked closely with Rohingya refugees in a variety of health care settings. The interviews documented and explored their perceptions and understanding of patterns of injuries and conditions suffered by Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar who were evaluated in Bangladesh after August 2017, with a specific focus on sexual violence.

“Trauma shows up in a lot of ways for a lot of different people. Everyone there is traumatized, I would say, without a doubt.”

A physician working in Cox’s Bazar in 2017 and 2018

Sexual violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar was widespread and followed common patterns, according to accounts by these health care workers. These health professionals’ narratives help corroborate and attest to patterns of perpetration of sexual violence by members of the military and those in uniform, consistent with many other reports.[1]

In interviews conducted by PHR, health workers give further credence to the allegation that the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar, was the primary perpetrator of widespread and systematic sexual violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar during the “clearance operations” of August 2017.

Health care workers interviewed as part of this study report that gang rape, sexual humiliation and other attacks on personal dignity, and sexual violence accompanied by other violent acts were typical experiences recalled by their patients and were reported to have been conducted by the Tatmadaw.

Health workers interviewed by PHR universally reported seeing evidence or being told of occurrences and patterns of sexual and gender-based violence committed against women, girls, men, boys, and gender fluid and transgender people by the Myanmar military. All health care workers PHR interviewed observed physical and psychological consequences of such acts against the Rohingya. They also found they were unable to adequately address the widespread and profound physical and psychological after-effects of the violence, due to barriers related to infrastructure, communication, culture, and lack of resources within the humanitarian response health care system in Bangladesh.

Health care workers shared that physical evidence of injuries consequent to rape and patient histories related to sexual violence were most often revealed during provision of care for other reasons, such as gynecological complaints or pregnancy-related care, as opposed to women seeking post-rape care services. The health workers’ recollection of the behavioral and mental health status of their patients further suggests that this sexual violence and other violations had a deep and long-lasting impact on these survivors, with high levels of trauma demonstrated years after the event. The health care workers interviewed consistently described the Rohingya as a population with vast, unmet needs for mental health support.

Finally, health care workers described multiple barriers faced by the Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in accessing care, particularly in relation to sexual and gender-based violence and associated psychological consequences. These barriers include lack of screening protocols for physical and psychological consequences of sexual violence, limited availability of mental health care services, provider workload, patient privacy concerns, and stigma. These barriers decrease the Rohingya’s access to health services in refugee camps in Bangladesh, delay healing, and may compound the trauma they experienced as a result of the state of Myanmar’s violent campaign.

PHR recommends that meaningful efforts be made by the government of Myanmar to investigate allegations of widespread sexual violence by the Tatmadaw, prosecute those responsible, and work to provide human rights protections to the Rohingya currently living in Myanmar and any who choose to return in the future. PHR also calls on the government of Bangladesh and relevant humanitarian response actors to take all possible measures to address any barriers to care and ensure trauma-informed, survivor-centered approaches to respond to survivors’ needs. Finally, PHR recommends that the government of Myanmar and the regional and international community use all means at their disposal to support a range of justice and accountability efforts and ensure that the government of Myanmar complies with its obligations to prevent and punish the perpetration of grave human rights violations and related crimes, including sexual violence.