Unable to do anything else to protect their daughters from the jaw of brutal sexual assault by Myanmar’s military forces and Mogh extremists, helpless parents in the country’s strife-torn Rakhine state are marrying off their underage daughters in a bid to save them from the assaulters.

The scenario revealed itself as thousands of minor Rohingya girls started to visit medical centres at refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar for pregnancy-related diseases.

Soon after giving birth to a baby, the girls in Rakhine expect another, because they think that the state of pregnancy is the only means to protect themselves from the brutalities of the army and Mogh (Rakhine Buddhists), narrated expectant women who frequently visit the medical centres.

Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Dr AZM Zajid, coordinator of a medical centre near Panbazar at Balukhali of Ukhiya upazila, said: “Every day, some 3,000 to 5,000 Rohingya people visit this centre with numerous diseases. Of them, 400 to 500 are expectant mothers who come to receive treatment for pregnancy-related complications.

“Many of them are suffering from various risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth. We have to struggle to provide treatment to this many patients at a time.”

Quoting victims, Zahid said: “In Rakhine, girls are married off at a very young age as their parents hold the belief that army men and Mogh would not target their married daughters.

“And the girls expect baby soon after their marriage. As a result, they each have five to 12 children. Even, we have treated expectant mothers as young as 12/14.”

Marrying off underage girls has apparently become a social convention, he added.

Social convention

In the same vein, male counterparts of the Rohingya women said they too prefer the women to conceive at a young age.

“This has already become a custom in our society. The earlier a girl is married off, the better. Nobody wants his mother, wife and sisters to be violated [at the hands of army men], said an elderly Rohingya refugee, Abdul Zabber.

Fearing stigma, many such girls initially declined to talk to the Dhaka Tribune when the correspondent approached them for their accounts. Later, some of them admitted that they had to agree to wedding proposals as per their families’ will, as they were at a constant risk of losing their virginity to the soldiers and Buddhist extremists.

Moreover, the problems of child marriage and early pregnancy are getting even worse due to illiteracy among the girls and lack of family planning campaigns in Rakhine.

On Wednesday, when taking treatment at the Panbazar medical centre, Rohingya refugees Mubina Begum, Sapura Khatun and Ramija Begum described why girls in the state prefer being pregnant all the year round.

According to the trio, army men, assisted by local Buddhists, rape Rohingya girls for hours at a stretch after picking them up from their homes, an organised campaign of sexual assault against the Rohingya Muslims that has been continuing for decades.

They burst into tears as they described their terrible ordeal to the correspondent.

Ramija wiped away her tears remembering her 14-year-old daughter Shahena, who never returned home after the Mogh had kidnapped her one year ago.

According to Dr Pintu Kanti Bhattacharya, deputy director of the Directorate General of Family Planning, Cox’s Bazar, there are over 30,000 expectant women among 603,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar since August 24, after ethnic conflicts in Rakhine sparked the most rapid human exodus since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Since then, 700 to 1,000 babies have been born in Bangladesh, while over 10,000 women will be delivered of their babies soon, he said, adding that every day seven to eight babies are born at different medical centres in the camps.

Dr Pintu stressed the need for bringing the Rohingya women, who have taken shelter in Bangladesh, under the directorate’s family planning campaigns.

“Apart from treating the women infected with various diseases including malnutrition, seven medical teams comprised of 200 health workers are counselling them on birth control. The teams are also carrying out awareness building campaigns to this end,” the official continued.

According to reports released by the UNHCR, International Organization for Migration and other stakeholders, 120,000 pregnant and lactating women are in dire need of nutrition support in the refugee camps.

Dr Mejbah Uddin Ahmed, health and family planning officer in Ukhiya upazila, said: “Most girls who fled Rakhine are rape survivors. We have yet to identify all of them.”

Stigmatised and therefore reticent, the victims are too shy to share their ordeal with the physicians. As a result, listing and treating them have become a cumbersome task, he added.

This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune.