In June 2018, the Shalbagan refugee camp in Bangladesh, home to 41,000 Rohingya—the Muslim minority group that fled genocide in Myanmar—became the ﬁrst of 30 new camps to elect leaders. When the results were tallied, organizers at the United Nations Refugee Agency and The Adventist Development and Relief Agency International, which spearheaded the vote, were pleasantly surprised to learn female refugees had won half of the 12 volunteer seats. “I’ve always been interested in helping out, so when I got the chance to run, I did,” says Rehana Akhter, 35, one of the newly elected members. “This has never happened before in our society!”
Gender parity in politics would be good news anywhere, but especially for Rohingya women, who along with their children make up 80 percent of the refugee population yet rarely held jobs or participated in community affairs back home. “Women didn’t lead back in Myanmar. Even if we’d wanted to, our society doesn’t allow for it,” Akhter says. “But in Bangladesh, the prime minister [Sheikh Hasina] is a woman, so we are seen differently here.”
The elections weren’t an easy win. Many men in the camps were outraged that women like Akhter were chosen as block leaders over them. “How can the women lead us when they have never taken charge of anything in their lives?” complains Abdus Salam, a former leader who wasn’t reelected. “Our women don’t do this kind of work.”
But the new female leaders are proving him and other men wrong—helping fellow refugees fill out paperwork and find shelter, ensuring aid is getting to intended recipients, managing water, hygiene, and sanitation issues, and even stepping into to mediate domestic disputes as needed. They also readied the camps for monsoon season; aid workers had feared the latest storms would be deadly, but the camps sustained minimal damage because they were so well-prepared. “Women are doing things they never did,” says Romeda Begum, a 27-year-old who arrived in October 2017, along with her mom, younger sister, and brother, and now serves as block leader.
The women also cracked down on men selling their family’s aid cards—used to get weekly food rations, like rice, oil, salt, onion, and other necessities—for yaba, a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine. “Before, the women were too shy to report what had happened,” Begum says. “[And even when they did], the men in charge wouldn’t help because they were friendly with their husbands and didn’t take the wives concerns seriously. I’m able to help with that.”
That was a life-saver for Noor Fatima, a 23-year-old woman who has lived in the camp with her husband and two children since September 2017. After her husband, a drug addict, sold their aid card to fuel his yaba addiction, she was barely getting by on the remaining lentils and rice she had, begging fellow refugees to share their own limited supplies while her hungry children cried. She tried to get her majhi, a male refugee leader appointed by the Bangladesh Army, to help, but he dismissed her concerns as a petty domestic dispute.
Frustrated, Fatima turned to Akhter, then fresh off her election victory, who was able to get Fatima’s aid card back—and help her file for divorce from her husband, something she had long been trying to achieve. “Rehana understood my problem and helped me get justice,” Fatima says. “I’m so glad there are women in charge now.”
Such accomplishments are why elections will now be held in all of the camps, where nearly one million refugees live, beginning this summer. More than anything, the women want to return to Myanmar, Akhter says, and if they are ever able to do so, they hope to bring their newfound power with them. “I want women to live the way we do here—much easier and free,” Akhter adds. “If God blesses us, Rohingya women can lead in Myanmar.”
This story was reported with a grant from the South Asian Journalists Association.
A version of this story originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Marie Claire.