Burqa-clad Kohinoor pushed Kolima away from her seat. Kolima was happily wearing her favourite scarf and earrings. She burst into laughter and returned to her previous position.
“I would love to be a makeup artist when I grow up,” Kolima declared.
“Don’t you think that is too high an ambition? What is the point of aspiring to something that will not happen?” replied Kohinoor.
Kolima responded in a determined voice “You will see when I become one.
A safe space
The conversation was disrupted by the arrival of other learners, but Kolima and Kohinoor kept up their high spirits. Despite their cultural differences, playful shenanigans reflected the strong bond of friendship between them.
Both live in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. They fled from Myanmar in 2017 when they were barely 8 years old. Now, they have reached the age of adolescence, an age when your eyes are supposed to be full of dreams and aspirations. But life in the refugee camp is not easy, they are not free to leave the camps and must remain in their homes most of the time.
They come to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) learning facility regularly - a place they claim to be a safe space to them. However, in the face of harsh reality, they shy away from dreaming big. Today, they do not have a single legal document allowing them to stay and seek long-term solutions in the country that welcomed them.
Bangladesh is not a signatory of the 1951 refugee convention and does not recognise the Rohingya community as refugees. The country puts restrictions on movement, access to education, and work for Rohingya. But things are even more challenging for Rohingya women who in general are not allowed to go out of their houses without the supervision of a trusted male family member.
Girls are married off when they reach the age of adolescence and shouldered with domestic chores from an early age. The rate of domestic and gender-based violence is increasingly worrying.
According to the Inter-Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) were at increased risk of gender-based violence (GBV) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data collected by the International Rescue Committee in 19 camps across Cox’s Bazaar revealed that 81% of GBV in the Rohingya camps is perpetrated by intimate partners, while 56% of incidents are of physical violence.
In conversation with NRC staff, Kohinoor shared how girls in the camp face harassment when they go out. Men and boys sitting outside would make derogatory remarks, offensive gestures towards them. These incidents “impact our ways of life” she explained.
“Where Rohingya adolescent boys can access learning facilities however they want, the girls prefer to move in groups. This is why Rohingya girls can join learning facilities only when they are adjacent to their shelter,” she said.
In addition to that, parents face social pressure and criticism from neighbours when they send their girls to learning facilities and conservative groups question women’s presence in public and work spaces, further reducing their mobility.
“Above all, when we reach the age of puberty, we have to stay at home,” said Kohinoor.
When NRC started education programming in 2019, the organisation's staff went from door to door visiting and interacting with the learners and their guardians as a part of their regular activities, something NRC continue doing to this day. The organisation found that the dropout rate among female learners increases around the age of puberty.
After concluding the visits, NRC appointed female facilitators for female learning facilities which resulted in increased participation of women. NRC kept counselling the guardians, and has been sharing with them the importance of education ever since.
There are around 101 learning facilities established and operated by Norwegian Refugee Council in the camps.
This has encouraged learners like Yasmin and Kulsum to come to the learning facilities. Kulsum is 14 and used to spend most of her time on household chores with her sister-in-law, Yasmin. In a family of seven, Kulsum’s marriage is the topic most discussed as, according to them, she is now old enough to marry.
Learning literacy skills
After a series of conversations with her parents and home-visits by NRC staff, both Kulsum and Yasmin, who is the mother of a two-year-old daughter, enrolled in the nearby learning facility.
Kulsum’s family is happy as she is acquiring basic literacy skills, but they are still looking for a suitor. Kulsum feels that the reason Rohingya women do not dream big is that “it is better to have fewer expectations than bigger disappointments.”
However, after spending almost a year with her peers, both Kulsum and Yasmin have developed a different perspective on life. “We have acquired a basic education. Now we can keep track of monthly expenses at home,” they say.
They would love to gain some financial solvency as well to support their families. This is why they are eager to investigate the skills development packages NRC is about to introduce in their camp.
In the camps, NRC used to provide informal education with basic literacy to the learners. And they do not receive any form of certification for that knowledge. Only recently have the government allowed aid organisations to implement the Myanmar Curriculum in the camps.
UN agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations responsible for delivering education services within the camps are pushing for an assessment and an official certification process
Aliya Noor, NRC’s education project manager in Bangladesh has been closely observing learners’ participation since then.
“I am aware of the challenges Rohingya adolescent girls face to pursue education. But they do want to learn more than basic literacy. And I have observed a sharp rise in their participation after we started implementing the Myanmar Curriculum,” she said. As long as the population remains hopeful of their return, learning their curriculum will be a key issue for them.
Norwegian Refugee Council expects that learners within the camps will receive course completion certificates which will act as a type of learning record. This will help them get a job or manage their livelihood when they return to their country.
Aliya is optimistic about female participation. And Yasmin is determined to send her daughter to the learning facilities.
“I have gathered knowledge to teach my daughter the basics at home, but I want her to have a better and prosperous life. I would love to see her going to the learning facilities and someday become a doctor or teacher. And for that I am prepared to tackle the prejudice around.”
Supporting girls in the camp
The Rohingya camps are a challenging place. Due to social, cultural, and religious practices women and girls often lag behind in life. But there are personalities who do their best to uphold the spirit of adolescent girls.
Majhi Halima is one of them. The community leaders in the camps are usually male. Halima is one of very few of the female majhis (community leaders). She has been supporting education for adolescent girls and does everything she can to promote education.
She helped NRC introduce a home-based learning facility in her camp. When we asked about her opinion on women's education and empowerment she said
“Men tend to take me less seriously during decision-making. They include me only when they need me to settle disputes, or when they need a woman there. Thankfully, I am old, so I get a bit of respect. And I don't mind their behaviour either. I try not to let that get into my head. I would rather keep doing what I feel is the best for my community.”