Exemplifying Gender Equality to Benefit All in the Rohingya Community

Geneva, 9 March 2020 - ICMC Malaysia’s new videos aim to show how Rohingya refugees are making changes that benefit them and their families and that shed a different light on traditional gender roles.

ICMC Malaysia has released two videos portraying testimonies by members of the Rohingya refugee community in Kuala Lumpur. The videos tell the stories of changes that the protagonists made to improve their quality of life. The short films aim to promote gender equality in the community and help Rohingya refugees integrate and succeed in Malaysia.

One video tells the story of Tasmida, a Rohingya woman who was unable to get around in Kuala Lumpur because of the language barrier. So she decided to take English classes with other women.

“At first, I felt very embarrassed and shy to speak with people,” says Tasmida, “because I thought ‘If I make a mistake, what will people think.’ But after much practice, I can help the women and children in my community.”

The video shows how communicating in English allows Tasmida to get around the city, find free health clinics, and purchase what she needs for her family. It also shows that her English skills allowed her to find a job with a Rohingya-led NGO.

“I think education is very important in order to improve our ability to be more independent and to earn an income to support ourselves,” Tasmida says.

Malaysia’s official language is Malay, but English has an active functional role and remains widely spoken in the former British colony. It is particularly popular for commerce and business in Kuala Lumpur. For refugees awaiting resettlement to a third country, learning English can often increase their capacity to integrate once they resettle.

The second video tells the story of Hakim, a young man who graduated from law school in Myanmar. After fleeing to Malaysia, he began to work for ICMC's Refugee Protection Corps. A large part of his work involved accompanying and supporting Rohingya survivors of domestic abuse. He witnessed the harmful effects of gender-based violence in his community.

“Some stories were really sad. This made me think of my own position within my family,” he says. “I started to think: ‘Maybe I can change my behavior, too.’”

Hakim began to question the gender-based distribution of tasks in his home. The video shows him sharing cooking and child-rearing tasks with his wife, who also works to support the family.

“For me, sharing responsibility is good for a family, and gender equality begins at home. It improves our marriage and family relationships. My wife and children respect me more,” he says. For him it is also important that his wife should not be confined to the domestic sphere traditionally reserved for women in Rohingya culture.

Since their release, the videos have been widely shared in discussion groups throughout Kuala Lumpur’s Rohingya refugee community.

The videos attempt to question traditional Rohingya values that may be harmful to women. Gender roles remain extremely segregated within the Rohingya culture.

When girls reach puberty, they are required to stay at home unless an adult family member accompanies them. Rohingya women and girls are often discouraged from working, and the families of those who choose to work are scorned. Marriage continues to be most women’s only means to attain economic security. Women are responsible for all forms of domestic work and child-raising activities.

Various forms of gender-based violence, including domestic violence and the marriage of girl children, are widespread and normalized in the Rohingya community. A study in the community in Malaysia reported that the vast majority of women surveyed had been pushed, shoved, or slapped in the previous year, and over half reported being punched, kicked, or beaten.

Since 2010, ICMC works to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence among the Rohingya and other refugee communities in Malaysia. ICMC provides shelter, psychosocial care, and counseling for survivors and also conducts awareness-raising activities that help identify survivors.