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Rohingya women risk rape, death on marriage odyssey

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Six-year-old daughter Nosmin Fatima (bottom left) is carried off a boat as she and her mother Majuma land with other Rohingya migrants in Lhokseumawe in North Aceh Regency, Indonesia. AFP

Rohingya women risk rape, death on marriage odyssey

Stay in a squalid refugee camp – hopeless, starving, and made to feel a burden – or leave, risking death, rape, human trafficking and months at sea to reach a husband you’ve never met.

This is the bleak choice many Rohingya women, already scarred from fleeing violent persecution in Myanmar, are now facing.

As conditions deteriorate in increasingly overcrowded Bangladeshi refugee camps, desperate parents are marrying off their daughters to Rohingya men thousands of kilometres away in Malaysia.

Wed by phone or video apps, the girls have little say in such unions and rely on occasional calls to build a relationship with their new partners as they begin treacherous journeys to reach them.

“My parents kept asking me to find a way to reach Malaysia – living with them, I was just an extra mouth to feed,” explained Jannat Ara, talking about her marriage to Nur Alam, a Rohingya man who lives in Kuala Lumpur.

She has seven other siblings, and the family had to share and survive on twice-monthly 25kg rations of rice.

Ara has never met the man she married via phone call from the refugee camp but, after mounting pressure from relatives to seek him out, decided to leave.

She is one of the thousands of Rohingya, who are stateless and cannot travel abroad legally, forced to put their faith in husbands they don’t know and the people smugglers paid to transport them.

Her clandestine route took her via rickshaw to port, and from a small boat to a packed, dilapidated trawler.

But Malaysia denied it entry and “after floating at sea for two months and seeing many people die, we returned to the place where we started”, the 20-year-old said from the Bangladeshi camps.

Absent grooms

Arranged marriages are part of Rohingya custom, but in the Bangladeshi refugee camps, families have little income and struggle to afford the traditional dowries required.

Virtual weddings and international betrothals can seem an ideal solution.

At just 18, Somuda Begum was regarded as getting “too old” for marriage by relatives, and while proposals came from some families within the camp, they all demanded “a lot of money”.

“My parents couldn’t fix my marriage as my old father barely had any money to pay for a wedding. So he thought it would be better to send me to Malaysia instead,” she said.

Begum, one of 11 children, was shown a photo of her prospective husband before the pair wed via video call – her in-laws and an imam were present in her family’s shack for the “ceremony”, her fiance on screen with his friends.

But the journey into the unknown held some appeal.

Begum said: “I often got frustrated hearing my mother and neighbours saying I was too old. I had no reason to say no. And deep inside I felt a bit happy that finally I would go and start my own family, away from this chaos.”

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