How this young Rohingya refugee is empowering other female refugees
There are over 152,000 registered refugees in Malaysia, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The majority of this population are displaced Rohingya people, who have been fleeing from Myanmar to Malaysia for the past 40 years — none of whom are allowed to work or study in the country,
Sharifa Hussain is trying to change that. I met Hussain, a fighter for Rohingya refugees’ basic human rights and dignity, in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, last August. Hussain, who is now 25 years old, was born in Burma. When Hussain was 5, her father fled to Malaysia, and soon after, Hussain’s mother took her and her siblings to Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar. Her family fled because they are Rohingya, which means that they are part of a minority Muslim group that has faced, and continues to face, persecution in Myanmar. After her mother was arrested in Yangon and sentenced to prison for not having official documents, Hussain contacted her father, who paid human traffickers to smuggle her and her younger siblings to Malaysia. She has lived there since.
Tensions between religious groups in Myanmar — and, particularly, persecution of the Rohingya people — have existed for decades, if not centuries. But in 1982 tensions came to a head when a law was passed in the country identifying eight ethnicities entitled to citizenship; the Rohingya were not one of them and were effectively stripped of their citizenship. In recent years, there has been a surge of human rights violations against the Rohingya. In fact, in September 2017, U.N. Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein called the attacks on the Rohingya in Myanmar textbook ethnic cleansing. With these threats has come an influx in the Rohingya people’s migration, resulting in tens of thousands being trafficked into Malaysia as well as Bangladesh.
The Rohingya people’s current status as refugees in Malaysia, however, is complicated. It extends back to the UNHCR’s 1951 Refugee Convention, which was meant to define who a “refugee” is and the rights such individuals receive upon being granted asylum in their host countries. Malaysia was not a signatory party to this convention or to its 1967 protocol. As such, Rohingya refugees have not had and still do not have rights in Malaysia. Many of them live in the Gombak district, a lower-class community that has affordable housing, and work illegally.
Like many other Rohingya refugees, Sharifa Hussain never received a formal education, although she did receive a basic primary-level education through the UNHCR parallel school systems for refugees in Malaysia. In a 2012 interview with PRI, Hussain said that she cried regularly as a child, because her peers would not play with her due to her refugee status; they viewed her as someone who would take opportunities from Malaysians.
These experiences led Hussain to found the Rohingya Women Development Network (RWDN), an organization that helps liberate Rohingya women who were trafficked into Malaysia, in 2017.
Rohingya women in Malaysia not only generally fail to receive an education, but in accordance with their own cultural standards, they do not work, either, according to Hussain. RWDN gives these women an opportunity “to network, to make them understand that they should contribute, not only consume,” Hussain said. “Females from such communities are unaware that they have equal rights as the men.”
Hussain has helped single mothers get jobs and start their own business. At the organization’s headquarters, handmade products made by Rohingya women are ready to be shipped to be sold in Southeast Asia and South Africa. The profits of these products are given to the women who made them. Hussain has also taught English classes as well as better general communication skills to girls and their mothers, so that they can feel more confident starting their own businesses.
“Whatever I do is little,” she told me. “But for them, it’s huge.”
Hussain’s work to empower Rohingya women, however, is viewed as shameful by some male Rohingya leaders in Malaysia. She receives direct attacks from them through various platforms.
For example, a number of Rohingya girls, some as young as 11, have been trafficked from Myanmar to Malaysia to be sold as child brides. This trafficking is often facilitated by self-proclaimed Rohingya “community leaders” who reside in Malaysia themselves. Mohamed Sadek, the program coordinator of the Rohingya Arakanese Refugee Committee, explained that because so many Rohingya men left their families behind in Myanmar when they fled to Malaysia, it has resulted in them paying between 6,000 and 14,000 Malaysian ringgit for trafficked Rohingya brides.
Many of these trafficked girls experience the same fate, according to Hussain and a few other advocates: They end up in abusive marriages that often result in divorce. One such case involved an 11-year-old girl whose mother forced her to marry a man 20 years older than her. After two years, she was divorced with a child — at 13 years old. Young and afraid of going back to Myanmar, these children believe that whatever they face as extremely young, single mothers in Malaysia will still be better than what they faced back home.
Sadek also claims that these “leaders” steal aid money, which Hussain echoed. She explained that due to a lack of a tracking system for money given to these “leaders” from various sources, such as Arab individuals and organizations, the money intended to help the Rohingya community instead goes missing with no solid development made for the community. A private investigation to validate these claims has not been made.
While the Malaysian government has made multiple promises to improve the conditions of the Rohingya in the nation and crack down on trafficking, many in the Rohingya community interpret these promises as mere lip service since no concrete steps have yet been made to do so. In lieu of that help, leaders like Sharifa Houssain are crucial.
“We do not have a role model so I became one unknowingly,” Sharifa told me. “I want [Rohingya refugees] to shine the way they are.”