Gendered insecurity in the Rohingya crisis

Last month, Human Rights Watch released a report confirming that the Burmese security forces “have committed widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine State” since 25 August 2017. The report found that the actions of the military, border police and ethnic Rakhine militias amount to crimes against humanity under international law.

Although there is no legally agreed definition of ethnic cleansing, the description developed by a UN Commission of Experts holds significant sway. They described ethnic cleansing as ‘a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.’ The events of September and October have certainly served to remove Rohingyas from northern Rakhine State.

In early December, the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the very few international organisations with access to effected areas inside Myanmar, reported that “formerly energetic communities and village tracts are suddenly empty. Life continues for those that remain, but in certain parts of Maungdaw and Sittwe, there is a pervasive sense of absence.”

MSF have now also released extensive testimonies from survivors on the killing, arson and sexual violence they have experienced. Ninety percent of the survivors of sexual violence treated by MSF were attacked after 25 August. Fifty per cent of survivors are under the age of 18, including several under the age of ten.

Early reports of the number of pregnant women and new mothers in the refugee population could have been used as an indicator of increased conflict related sexual violence and ethnic cleansing. While the accuracy of the data and a heightened tendency for pregnant women to flee may both affect the analysis, the matrix of indicators of conflict-related sexual violence developed in response to UN Security Council Resolution 1888 identifies an increase in cases of unwanted pregnancy as an indicator of ongoing sexual violence. International non-governmental organisation Ipas, began increasing its response to the crisis, providing trainers to ‘provide on-site training for health workers in postabortion care’.

That same matrix also reminds us that the increasing ‘statements from doctors, war surgeons, gynaecologists and/or medical NGOs that they are increasingly seeing rape-related injuries’ are an indicator of ongoing sexual violence. As early as September, doctors from the International Organization for Migration, as well as a range of UN agencies and non-governmental organisations, reported high numbers of patients with physical injuries that are consistent with violent sexual attacks, including forced penetration and lacerations to the vagina.

In the two weeks immediately proceeding the crisis, the lead UN agency on sexual and gender based violence (UNFPA), provided services to 3500 Rohingya refugee women who had been sexually assaulted. It is incredibly difficult to gather large-scale data on sexual violence in emergencies, but we do know that only 7 percent of women subjected to sexual violence during the conflict in East Timor reported it, and only 6 percent of rape victims during the Rwandan genocide sought medical treatment. If the women and girls who have reported to those health clinics represent 6 percent of victims, they would be the tip of just one iceberg comprising 58,300 women and girls.

If we had used a gendered lens to analyse the unfolding crisis from the outset, we would have had a better comprehension of the ethnic cleansing that was occurring from the outset. This could have better informed humanitarian and international legal responses. A new comment in the Australian Journal of International Affairs unpacks reported figures of pregnant women who are seeking refuge in Bangladesh in an attempt to understand some of the gendered dimensions of the conflict. It proposes possible reasons for the presence of a high proportion of pregnant and lactating women in the refugee population, and goes on to reflect on indications of increased conflict-related sexual violence and ethnic cleansing. It shows that, while failings in the quality of data in emergencies mean it cannot be relied on as the basis for rigorous conclusions about the gendered nature of conflict, when taken with qualitative reports, and compared with other emergencies, gendered data can be used to build a better understanding of the conflict.

In the first two weeks of the Rohingya crisis, UNICEF reported that an unprecedented portion of the refugees fleeing to Bangladesh were children. The Chief of Child Protection for UNICEF in Bangladesh, Jean Lieby announced that preliminary data showed that 60 percent of the arriving refugees were children, who were often unaccompanied. Such extreme family separation can be an indicator of the degree of chaos and of rate of adult deaths. This second indication is reinforced by the fact the next largest age group of refugees are the elderly. UNICEF also reported that 67 percent of the refugees are female. Combined, this could indicate fighting age males had been targeted in Myanmar.

In mid-September, the Bangladesh Ministry of Health reported that approximately 70,000 of the Rohingya refugees who have arrived since August were pregnant or new mothers. This would represent a staggering 20.8 percent of the female population. Despite the high birth rates among Rohingya communities, we know that Rohingya women have an average of 3.8 children in their lifetime, we would expect only 6.9 percent of the female Rohingya refugee population to be pregnant or breastfeeding. The Bangladesh home minister has said that 90 percent of the refugee women have been raped. That would equate to over 335,600 people.

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said that “the level of hatred and extreme violence—especially towards women and children” is driven by dehumanisation and racism. Because the Rohingya have been described as “too dirty” for soldiers to rape, he believes there is no doubt that “the majority of the women who were raped were killed.” The organisation has drawn connections between what is happening to the Rohingya in Rakhine State and what occurred during the genocide in Rwanda.

Indeed, a comparison of the above data on the Rohingya refugees to that which we saw in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide provided an early indicator of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State. UN reporting in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide indicated that the genocide had so rapidly altered the demographics that 60–70 percent of the population was female. It was estimated that the Rwandan refugee population exceeded pre-war fertility. In the immediate aftermath, this was presumed to be the case because of the high number of men who were killed during the genocide. Adolescent and adult males under the age of 45 were the primary targets in the early stages of the Rwandan genocide. There were also “indications that attempts to exterminate women, girls and the elderly eventually encountered significant popular opposition”. But sexual violence was a key feature of the Rwandan genocide. Although, as in the Rohingya case, the majority of rape victims were then killed, most recent estimates indicate that in excess of 20,000 Rwandan children were born from genocidal rape.

It is hoped that the new comment in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, and the general analysis described here, will serve as a reminder of the importance of gendered, cross-disciplinary research to accurately understand forces of peace and conflict in the world, and to inform appropriate policy responses such as humanitarian assistance and international legal action.


Suicide prevention in an era of diminishing social welfare

When I think about suicide it is for one of two reasons. First, the system that is supposed to help and protect me is so inaccessible and combative that the future is too bleak to go on. The second is that I am just too exhausted to continue. This issue, of course, ties into the nature of the chronic illness from which I suffer. But the first point is more systematic and it is the reason why I cringe at ‘suicide prevention’ funding and programs.

A recent study in the US showed that in states where gay marriage was legalised, suicide rates in young LGTBQI people were substantially lower than states where gay marriage wasn’t legalised. Researchers found that while marriage was not at the forefront of the minds of young LGTBQI people, its legalisation meant it was a possibility. This in turn showed young people there was a possibility for something brighter later in life.

Suicide prevention programs and funding usually focus on two things: raising awareness and asking for help. After a lifetime in the advocacy game, I will quite firmly and confidently tell you that raising awareness is not a legitimate or effective campaign objective. It is not enough. It is virtually impossible to measure. It is a poor substitute for actual action; a poor substitute for actual change.

Asking for help is important to develop coping mechansims and medical assistance. But what about when there is no help? What about when the situation that has led you to these thoughts isn’t solely due to mental illness; when the problem isn’t medical but is multilayered, bureaucratic and socially systemic?

It is poor effort for a government to announce an increase in ‘suicide prevention’ programming when they are cutting the welfare that the most vulberable Australians rely on, when the housing crisis means more and more people are homeless and forced into extreme housing stress. When the disability support pension is so difficult to apply for that the most vulnerable can’t manage the bureaucracy required, when even those trying to do the right thing are penalised when they can’t meet changing criteria for the maintenence of payments. When they live in constant fear that Centrelink will send them a bill for thousands of dollars. When their disability restricts their mobility, preventing their attendance at appointments made just because they need to be.

When employers won’t consider flexibility needed to capitalise on the skills of someone with a disability. When universities are so inflexible that they threaten to cancel the enrollment of intelligent, capable students with special needs. When public spaces and social norms make social engagement virtually impossible and society says that only healthy people are suitable mates for intimate relationships.

When the government defunds the community legal centres that provide assistance to victims of domestic violence that is both a leading cause of disability amoung young women and a high risk factor for victimisation. Those community legal centres also provide the disability discrimination lawyers who work with clients that universities are threatening.

Do you know what it’s like to listen to four consecutive federal budget speeches and know that you are the person the government is talking about when they coin the term ‘leaners’ when they talk of the burden of social security? When your senator undertakes a major survey of their constituents, questioning the very existence of the public health scheme that is supposed to allow you to engage in society in a more holistic way?

I am no psychologist. I am not an expert in public health. I am not a psychiatrist either or a mental health professional of any description. But I know what my experience has shown to be too much to deal with. In my experience public interventions that reduce these structural issues are a far more important intervention than raising awareness about suicide in Australia.

The number of Australians who know that suicide is a problem will not stop me ending my own life. But if there were fewer battles to face to keep a roof over my head and allow me to meaningfully contribute to society in accordance with my own strengths and capabilities, that would stop me wanting to end my own life.

Yoga Your Way

Today is International Yoga Day. I was fascinated yesterday, to read an article by Gina Woodhill on issues in the yoga industry in Australia. I would not be surprised if similar issues applied in other western countries. I agree with and am similarly concerned with the issues. I do not go to yoga classes. I have had several experiences with yoga teachers who show the arrogance she spoke of, and I have not felt such classes met the intent of yoga practice. But I do practice yoga.

I practice yoga at home, or in my office. Most recently, I practiced on my friend’s balcony in beautiful Brisbane. I don’t own a yoga mat, yoga pants or have a favourite yoga studio. I can’t afford to take a class and prefer the independence of solitary practice. In the cold Canberra winter, I like to practice when my body is warm after the shower. When I’m at home, I may lay a blanket on the floor. I like to practice in my pyjamas.

Pyjamas, balcony, yoga (the mat belonged to my friend)

Pyjamas, balcony, yoga (I borrowed the mat from my friend)

I started practicing because I wanted to move my body in healthy ways. I have a chronic health condition, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. I am fatigued by auditory overload, cognitive overload and physical activity. When I fatigue, my neurological function deteriorates to the extreme; I have trouble walking, talking and even thinking. When I fatigue like that, it is very undignified. My body sort of collapses in on itself, and when I am extremely bad, tears may fall from my eyes and my nose may run. It is easy to hate my body for what it cannot do, and what it does do.

I practice yoga to learn to love my body, to be mindful of what it can do, and to appreciate it. It makes me feel good. It is good for my mental health, and for my physical health.

I do a simple Sun Salutations routine, from an app on my mobile phone. The app is from, the routine is labelled as wellness for beginners. Doing yoga has helped with my balance and my strength. I am sure it has contributed to my reduced reliance on my walking stick. It also improves my posture, which is important after the indignity and physicality of collapsing in on myself.

Since getting sick, I’ve needed to learn to seriously listen to what my body tells me. I have needed to learn to identify triggers, to know when to stop an activity, and learn to recognise the onset of an episode or deterioration. My understanding of good yoga practice is that it is deeply tied to this notion of mindfulness; one of the key benefits I gain from my practice.

I had always been concerned about protecting my back from an old thoracic spine injury. But practicing yoga in this way also helps me manage my back; preventing flare ups and pain management.

I don’t think yoga is just for svelte women in lycra pants in classy studios. I think yoga is for everyone. This International Yoga Day, I hope more people can identify the ways in which yoga might be accessible for them and improve their wellbeing the way it has improved mine.


A friend of mine recently posted this youtube clip.

I jiggle therefore I am.

Feeling like a fox,

I kick balls,

Deal with it.

Damn right I look hot.


I was stoked. He does such great work (for his take on ethical fashion check out ishivest). He’s a great guy, working on community engagement and participatory democracy in Chicago. He’s also pretty good looking. It made me happy that someone of such calibre was posting a clip about women’s body image. It’s not just any clip mind you; it’s great.

This Girl Can is a women’s health campaign from the UK and I can’t think of a healthier message. It taps into one of the issues described in Emma Watson’s He for She speech at the UN: women and girls opting out of sport because they don’t want to look muscly, are embarrassed about sweat, or the other things that go with being active. But it’s not just that. It’s not about being thin, being good, or winning. It’s about moving and relishing what that does to your body.

I’ve never really felt the fear of sweat or muscle that I hear those women talk about. I’ve never been thin, but I’ve always liked working up a sweat. I jiggle. I sweat. When I’m rocking on the dance floor I feel like a fox. I love to kick a soccer ball; I do it with attitude, even if I’m not very good at it. I enjoy it. Damn right I look hot, I am hot; that’s kind of the point isn’t it, to get the heart pumping?

I’ve never been sporty, but I’ve been a relatively active person most of my life. I loved swimming from an early age: it was my thing, the sport I did as a kid. I didn’t learn to ride a bike till late in primary school, but when I bought my own, I loved to ride it to school. I was a Girl Guide and loved to hike. I loved orienteering. I joined the Army, and served for many years. I used to love running. I tried combatting my fear of heights by taking up rock climbing in the Grampians. I travelled to Africa and climbed a live volcanothat was hard work.

I climbed an active volcano and camped the night on the rim of the crater.

I climbed an active volcano and camped the night on the rim of the crater.

But what I really love about the This Girl Can video is the diversity of subjects. There are women of colour, women with disabilities, skinny women, bigger women, young women, old women. The campaign isn’t about a goal, or a competition, it’s just about moving what you have as best you can. For me, that’s a very empowering message.

A couple of years ago, I had a minor surgery and got a major infection which left me with a chronic, disabling illness. Now, I get auditory overload. I get cognitive fatigue, and physical fatigue. When I fatigue, I have trouble walking, talking and even thinking.

I can’t be around loud noises. So there’s no more dancing in clubs for me. Oh how I miss dancing. I can’t be in a place where lots of people are talking at once, so even backyard parties are a problem. Soccer is out of the question. If I go swimming, I need to be careful that I have enough energy left to climb the three flights of stairs to my apartment. I live alone so I need to leave myself enough energy to be safe and self sufficient. Yes, sex is a problem.

It’s been hard not to resent my body; not to be angry at being trapped in such an unhelpful place. It’s scary. It’s disempowering. It’s upsetting. It’s frustrating.

Sometimes people say, ‘you should keep positive.’ But as our beloved Stella Young used to say “no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.”


Part of maintaining my quality of life and good mental health is re-imagining a positive future for myself, within the confines of my current condition. It’s not healthy to go on falsely expecting everything to go back to the way it was before, if it won’t. No amount of smiling at the Hip Hop club will make me able to go in and dance the night away; or even have one dance without collapsing in the corner, a spastic bundle unable to control my limbs. So I am on a journey; learning to love my body for what this girl, and this body, can do.

There are a whole range of bonus This Girl Can clips. There’s one about a busy mum, one about losing inhibitions. But I really like the one called Grace Vs Pace. Grace rides a bike. She doesn’t wear lycra and she doesn’t go fast, but she goes and I think that’s great.


These days, I’m managing my health well enough that I can ride my bike from home to my office at uni. I ride my bike, and I do yoga.  I can’t afford lessons or anything; I have an app on my phone. I just have a little town bike, with three gears. I dawdle my way down the bike path, letting the men in lycra zoom past me. I love it. I love the physical act of cycling, I love the quiet bike path, I love that I’m doing something active, and I love that I don’t need to take the bus. When I get to uni, I open my window onto the oak filled courtyard and do a simple yoga routine. It calms me, it gives me the time to be mindful of my body, and to work it gently, kindly, beneficially.

There is no inspiration porn here, but someone trying to figure out what #thisgirlcan and I love that I’m able to do something good for, and with, my body.