Pari Saikia, a VICE World News India reporter, was recently selected as one of the three winners of the prestigious Lorenzo Natali Media Prize 2021, presented by the European Commission. Her work, titled “Rohingya Brides Thought They Were Fleeing Violence. Then They Met Their Grooms,” focuses on the plight of the Rohingya women who are exploited and trafficked to Kashmir to be married forcefully. Her report highlighted the dark and ugly side of the conflicts, communal politics, and violence leading to humanitarian crises.
This article, taking inspiration from Pari Saikia’s phenomenal work, will try to explore the Rohingya refugee crisis and how it has led to such a humanitarian catastrophe massive exploitation with a special focus on the Rohingya brides and how they are left in a quandary.
WHO ARE THE ROHINGYAS?
Rohingya is one of the ethnic minorities of Myanmar that have a population of one million (as of 2017) and majorly reside in the Rakhine state. They represented the largest percentage of Muslims in the country. The Rohingya population has been discriminated against in their own country for a long time. According to the 1982 Myanmar Nationality Law, Rohingyas are even denied citizenship, making them stateless in their own home. The nation has around 135 official ethnic groups but has no intention to recognize the Rohingyas as one of them. Rohingyas live in primitive conditions with ghetto-like camps with the poorest of services and opportunities. They have also faced a lot of restrictions on freedom of movement, education, marriage, civil service jobs, and even in practicing their religion.
The community claims that they are an indigenous population of western Myanmar, but the Myanmar government considers them colonial migrants from the neighboring state of present-day Bangladesh. There was a significant migration of laborers during British rule between present-day Myanmar and present-day India and Bangladesh. Since Myanmar was considered as part of the province of India by the British, the migration was considered internal. But such migration was viewed negatively by the natives, and after Independence, the Government considered such migration illegal. Thus the Rohingyas were denied any kind of citizenship. The state, where Buddhists are a majority, does not even recognize the term Rohingya and prefers addressing them as Bangali, thus leading to an increasing demand for self-determination for many years in the hopes of being recognized and having an identity. There have been many armed insurrections since the 1940s. The Rohingyas have faced a total of 5 military crackdowns since 1978—the latest one being in 2017 that has gained a lot of international attention. These military crackdowns have caused a lot of the Rohingyas to flee Myanmar and take refuge in the neighboring states of Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Pakistan, among others. These crackdowns are a brutal display of human rights violations where reports of rape, murder, torture, and arson against the Rohingyas by Myanmar’s security forces have resurfaced time after time.
WHAT IS THE ROHINGYA REFUGEE CRISIS?
The recent 2016-17 crackdown by the Myanmar army led to the displacement of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled their nation and crossed the border into Bangladesh. Though the military argued that their steps were necessary and were only targeting Rohingya militants, the UN described this incident as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” A thorough investigation by the UN has led to pieces of evidence of ethnic cleansing and religious intolerance against the Rohingyas by the “ultra-nationalist Buddhists.”
After the ASRA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) on 25th August 2017 launched an attack on more than 30 police posts, the whole fiasco started leading to the indiscriminate firing by the army troops on unarmed Rohingya men, women, and children. According to Human Rights Watch, the Government burnt down 55 villages in the regions, destroying every last shred of evidence of their violence against the “World’s Most Prosecuted Minority.”
According to, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 6,700 Rohingyas were killed in a month after the violence. By mid-2021- a total of 8,80,000 refugees were in Bangladesh, more than half of them being children. According to HRW, A total of 362 villages were destroyed either completely or partially since Myanmar’s military began their campaign against the Rohingya in August last year.
Most of the Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, and Kutupalong became the largest refugee settlement in the world, according to UNHCR. It is home to more than 600,000 refugees from Myanmar. In 2019, another problem arose for Rohingyas when Bangladesh decided that it would no longer accept Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar.
THE STORY OF ‘ROHINGYA BRIDES’
Even after losing everything and being forced to leave their homes, the struggle of the Rohingyas does not end. It has especially been difficult for women. In a 2019 United Nations Report, women were reported to have suffered the worst in this situation and were victims of gang rapes, torture, and many were even held captive as sexual slaves by the Myanmar army on their military bases.
Following the news report by Pari Saikia, where she follows the story of Rohingya women who were trafficked to Kashmir to be forcefully married, it was revealed that these women are mostly kept in insane, inhumane conditions. Rights as basic as using a washroom are denied. They are denied food and medical care and have to bear the freezing cold, beatings, and torture only to marry complete strangers forcefully. These women are usually married off to men who are old and have some mental illness, and thus they can not take care of themselves, and these women work more like a caretaker for them.
“There was a sudden surge in demand for Rohingya women after the 2017 mass exodus in Myanmar, while trafficking among Bangladeshi women went down, though it’s still prevalent,” says Salma Ali, an anti-trafficking activist and the president of the BNWLA (Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association).
Many Rohingya women are trafficked to Kashmir and Hyderabad because of the larger presence of Muslim populations in these regions, and the value of Rohingya women ranges from $680-$1370. A price of a human life is so cheap that even the average amount of money spent on one Kashmiri wedding is much more than this.
The traffickers capitalize on the situation of Rohingyas in Myanmar and dupe families who are desperate to marry off their daughters outside the country, which seems to be their last hope to protect their child from the sufferings they bear in their country. Most of the time, these traffickers lure in these families by giving them false promises of marrying their daughters to young and handsome men.
According to the investigation by Pari Saikia, these women were exploited in Kashmir after their marriages and are often discriminated against owing to their distinct physical features. They were treated like servants and laborers and were not even allowed to talk to anyone except their husbands and in-laws. Some women even face incidents of physical abuse by their families.
“My husband once battered my head with a wooden log that resulted in many stitches. He threatens to throw me out of the house and keep the two children. There is suffering in my homeland too, and this place is no different. Sometimes, I just want to die to get rid of this suffering,” reported Muskan, one of the Rohingya women that Pari interviewed.
DIFFERENT NATION, SAME STORY
Rohingya women are also being taken to Malaysia, again with the false pretext of marrying them off to Rohingya men who have settled in Malaysia. A smuggler can fetch approximately $1651 for one woman. Most of the girls undertake an arduous journey by boat or travel through the risky mountains for weeks and even months to have an arranged marriage.
“People struggled like they were fish flopping around, then they stopped moving,” says Ms. Haresa, who was just a refugee that had traveled to Malaysia on the boat.
The case is always not of families selling their daughters to these traffickers but oftentimes of them being abducted and taken to Malaysia against their will. Also, due to lack of documentation, women are unable to travel back to Myanmar or to their refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they can get married. Thus, they are left stranded with very limited options— to either depend on their families who are already struggling to provide sufficient food or get married off to Rohingya men who have settled in Malaysia.
Often, children as young as twelve are forced to marry just so that their families can have sufficient food to eat. The UN World Food Programme rations have been allocated by household irrespective of the members in a family. Thus they marry off their daughters early to reduce the number of mouths to feed and create new households with food quotas of their own.
“Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar have few options— they cannot work and have no formal access to education. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh fear forced repatriation or relocation to the island. All these push factors could lead to a real uptick in Rohingya families—including girls—moving to Malaysia, some for child marriage,” said John Quinley, a researcher with Fortify Rights.
Matthew Smith, the executive director of the renowned Southeast Asia-based migrant and refugee protection group called Fortify Rights, said that the group had seen a “significant” rise in the number of child brides following increased violence in Rakhine. Although the statistics on women who were trafficked to Malaysia are not clear, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has identified at least 120 child brides in Malaysia.
Often in such situations of war or mass exodus, it is the women that suffer the most. From forceful marriages to rapes and being held captive as sexual slaves, women are always seen as a more vulnerable population. Reading about such incidents always leaves a sour taste and a feeling that humans are nothing but mere commodities and objects that can be exploited and taken advantage of— there is no room for emotions or empathy.
- For Young Rohingya Brides, Marriage Means a Perilous, Deadly Crossing, The New York Times.
- Myanmar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis, BBC News, January 23, 2020.
- Pari Saikia, Rohingya Brides Thought They Were Fleeing Violence. Then They Met Their Grooms, VICE World News.
- Rohingya People, Wikipedia.
- Victims Of Racism And Riots, Rohingya Women Are Being Sold As Child Brides In Countries Like Malaysia, India Times, February 17, 2017.
- Who are the Rohingyas, Aljazeera, April 18, 2018.