The Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar refugee camps are as worried about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as billions of other people around the world. So are Bangladeshi families living near the settlement, which is home to some 850,000 Rohingya refugees displaced from neighbouring Myanmar. They worry that the health system in an already poor area won’t be able to cope with a rapidly spreading virus.

But while Bangladesh’s nationwide lockdown, which began in March, is bringing with it an all-too-familiar economic shock to already impoverished communities, for some refugees the request to stay home is causing anxiety that has little to do with COVID-19 itself.

With many women and girls on lockdown, an increase in gender-based violence (GBV) –  especially intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation and other abuse – is anticipated.

“They came from a helpless situation and the lockdown is making them feel even more helpless,” says Shumi, who manages a Safe Space for Women and Girls in one of the Cox’s Bazar camps.

UNICEF supports 15 such Safe Spaces in the Cox’s Bazar District. Usually, the safe spaces offer protection services, such as group counselling, skills training, literacy sessions, psychosocial support and case management. The services are available for Rohingya and Bangladeshi women and girls who are vulnerable and/or are survivors of gender-based violence, trafficking, child marriage and other harmful practices. But the nationwide lockdown, and the closure of ‘non-essential’ services, has meant the Safe Space centres have had to be temporarily shuttered – at least the way they used to operate.

Shut, but not shut out

The vast majority of all reports of GBV in the Rohingya refugee camps in 2019 were made by women, and the incidents generally occurred inside the home of either the survivor or the perpetrator. In either case, other family members are typically present in the home, which points to another layer of  threat: the psychological impact on children and adolescents, who often witness the violence.  

But despite the national lockdown, case management, psychosocial support and referrals for health and safety services remain available to assist those women and girls in need of support.

“People are afraid because they fear services and care will stop. But we are still here,” Shumi says. “It helps a lot.”

At the centre where Shumi works, five female volunteers and five members of the centre’s women’s leadership group conduct regular house visits in the nearby community. During the visits, the volunteers share information on protective measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while respecting physical distancing guidelines.

People are afraid because they fear services and care will stop. But we are still here.

But the door-to-door visits aren’t just about COVID-19 – they also allow the volunteers to raise awareness about available gender-based violence response services, and about how these services can be accessed by GBV survivors. Information disclosed to volunteers is passed safely on to a case manager for appropriate follow up to ensure survivors of abuse get the support they need.

“We try to share as much information as possible with the community,” Shumi says.

Gertrude Mubiru, a Gender-Based Violence Specialist with UNICEF in Cox’s Bazar, acknowledges that COVID-19 prevention is a major focus of humanitarian efforts around the camps right now. But that doesn’t mean that help isn’t available for women and girls who need it, especially as UNICEF continues to monitor a number of  protection issues affecting Rohingya and Bangladeshi women and girls.

“While group activities have been discontinued at Safe Spaces for Women and Girls [to minimize the spread of coronavirus], critical services do remain available to address individual needs for new and existing GBV survivors” Gertrude says.

The COVID-19 pandemic is particularly challenging for vulnerable communities like the Rohingya. But if refugee communities are going to avoid a silent GBV crisis, protection programmes like these must remain a priority.

Gender-based violence programmes are jointly funded by the Governments of Canada, Germany (through the Development Bank of KfW), the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the UK Department for International Development (DFID), as well as the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), the United Nations Migration Agency, and USAID’s Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).