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Accounts from Health Care Professionals Indicate Widespread and Long-lasting Impacts of Sexual Violence Against Rohingya

Interviews with health workers who have treated Rohingya survivors in Bangladesh corroborate allegations of sexual violence by Myanmar military: New Physicians for Human Rights investigation

A new report from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documents widespread sexual violence committed by the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar, and Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya during a massive campaign of violence in August 2017 that drove more than 720,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh. Doctors, nurses, mental health experts, and other health professionals who provided direct medical services to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh camps gave accounts of the huge physical and psychological toll of sexual and gender-based violence on Rohingya women, girls, men, boys, and transgender and gender fluid people.

This research builds on PHR’s work documenting human rights violations in Myanmar for more than 15 years. Following the August 2017 “clearance operation” carried out by Myanmar security forces and Rakhine Buddhist civilians in Rohingya villages across Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, PHR teams conducted forensic examinations of survivors in what is now the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar. The research teams gathered qualitative and quantitative data documenting the grave human rights violations committed against the Rohingya by Myanmar armed forces, including long-term disabilities resulting from the 2017 attack.

PHR’s new report, “Sexual Violence, Trauma, and Neglect: Observations of Health Care Providers Treating Rohingya Survivors in Refugee Camps in Bangladesh,”presents qualitative data gathered through interviews with 26 health care workers from a variety of humanitarian organizations who provided direct care to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh for some period between August 2017 and August 2020. Few studies have documented the experience of Rohingya refugees through the lens of the people who cared for them in

Bangladesh. PHR sought the perspective of health care workers in order to provide an independent corroboration of the patterns of violence sustained by the Rohingya community and to avoid potentially re-traumatizing interviews with survivors. A PHR research team of American and Bangladeshi social scientists and physicians with experience documenting or responding to sexual and gender-based violence collected data in two phases between November 2019 and August 2020.

The accounts of health workers interviewed by PHR further substantiate the documented patterns of violence inflicted on the Rohingya by members of the Myanmar military and those in uniform.

“These narratives from health care professionals are critical in providing additional evidence of the patterns of sexual and gender-based violence suffered by Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar at the hands of the Tatmadaw,” said Ranit Mishori, MD, MHS, PHR’s senior medical advisor, professor of family medicine at Georgetown University, and co-author of the report. “Health workers’ testimonies of the behavioral and mental health status of Rohingya survivors tell us that these egregious acts of violence had a deep and long-lasting impact on survivors, significantly traumatizing them even years after the initial event.”

Health care workers reported that their Rohingya patients recounted similar experiences and patterns of gang rape, sexual humiliation, and sexual and gender-based violence accompanied by other violent acts, such as beatings, shooting, and killing of family members, carried out by the Tatmadaw and allied security forces against women, girls, men, boys, and gender fluid and transgender people.

Accounts from health care workers cited in the report also revealed chronic barriers to access to health care among Rohingya refugees, particularly regarding response to sexual and gender-based violence and associated impacts on physical, mental, and behavioral health. These barriers included a lack of screening protocols for physical and psychological consequences of sexual violence, limited availability of mental health care services, provider workload, patient privacy concerns, and stigma. These hurdles can delay healing and may compound the significant trauma the Rohingya sustained from attacks by Myanmar’s armed forces.

The report reinforces PHR’s calls on the Myanmar government to launch immediate investigations of grave human rights violations against the Rohingya perpetrated by the Tatmadaw and Myanmar security forces, and to hold those responsible accountable for the atrocities they have committed.

“Perpetrators of this degree of vicious and unrelenting violence must be held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest extent of international law,” said Karen Naimer, JD, LLM, MA, PHR’s director of programs. “The torment, suffering, and injustices the Rohingya have endured is unfathomable. These accounts bolster the need for action by the government of Bangladesh and humanitarian partners to ensure that trauma-informed, survivor-centered treatment and support is accessible to survivors as they try to rebuild their lives.”

The report includes a series of recommendations to the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh; humanitarian agencies, donors, and local service providers; and the international community. Specifically, PHR calls on the international community to use all means to support a range of justice and accountability efforts and to ensure the government of Myanmar upholds the provisional measures issued in January 2020 by the International Court of Justice to protect the Rohingya from genocide, as well as to prevent the perpetration of any further atrocity crimes.

PHR calls on the government of Myanmar to initiate prompt, independent, and impartial criminal investigations into all allegations of grave human rights violations, including the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, by the Tatmadaw. To the government of Bangladesh, PHR urges leaders to provide greater access to appropriate medical care for survivors of sexual violence, specifically Rohingya survivors, including psychosocial support. Additionally, PHR calls on humanitarian agencies, donors, and local service providers to strengthen access to survivor-centered care for victims of sexual violence, including long-term access to psychosocial and mental health support for all Rohingya refugees. It also calls on them to promote greater access to justice and legal support for survivors of sexual violence.

Additional PHR resources on the human rights issues related to Rohingya refugees:

  • Multimedia: “The Rohingya: Survivors of Atrocity,” August 24, 2020
  • Statement: “PHR Welcomes UN Human Rights Council Demands for Demonstrable Commitments from the Government of Myanmar towards Justice and Accountability,” June 23, 2020
  • Blog: “Myanmar Massacre Pardons Underscore Impunity,” May 30, 2019
  • Press Release: “PHR Study Demonstrates Widespread, Systematic Violence Against the Rohingya in Myanmar; Published in Prestigious Medical Journal, ‘The Lancet Planetary Health,’” March 21, 2019
  • Report: “Widespread and Systematic: Violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar,” August 30, 2018
  • Report: “Please Tell the World What They Have Done to Us,” July 19, 2018
  • Press Release: “PHR to UN Rapporteur: Press for Rohingya Safety and Justice,” January 16, 2019
  • Press Release: “Myanmar’s Rohingya Continue to Suffer Systematic Extortion, Abuse,” October 12, 2016
  • Report: “Stateless and Starving: Persecuted Rohingya Flee Burma and Starve in Bangladesh,” March 1, 2010

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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