Nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, are bracing for the deadly impact of COVID-19. Rumors are spreading and panic is growing. The refugee camp is locked down, and girls and young women are in danger.
Plan International’s local staff spoke to girls living in Cox’s Bazar to see how their lives have changed since the camp has been quarantined.
Meghla, 16, has seen how COVID-19 is destroying girls’ lives; violence and forced child marriage are becoming greater threats because of the pandemic. “I heard about a child marriage recently,” she says. “I tried to stop it and informed local authorities. Unfortunately, they couldn’t respond in time due to lockdown.”
Girls are incredibly anxious about their futures, especially now that schools in the camp are closed. Another girl we spoke with, Rebeka, is spending her time doing chores and trying to teach herself at home. “I’m facing difficulties with my lessons without any guidance from my teachers,” she told us. “I heard that the government of Bangladesh is broadcasting distance learning lessons on TV, but most here aren’t aware of that.”
And menstrual hygiene is becoming almost impossible to manage. Many girls in Cox’s Bazar are using homemade sanitary pads during their periods — they are uncomfortable to wear and unhygienic. “We can’t go to the health center anymore to receive health services,” Rebeka says.
Unable to see healthcare providers, pregnant girls and young women are left with nowhere to turn. Rujina, 19, was married just a few months ago and is now pregnant with her first child. Her husband can no longer work, so they no longer have an income. Rujina needs nutritious food and regular checkups, but staying healthy has become almost impossible.
“This money will run out — I don’t know what we will do then,” she says. “The food will run out too. I’ve learned that pregnant women should lead a happy life and live in a friendly environment. But now I’m living in fear. When will I be able to get back to my normal life?”
Families in Cox’s Bazar don’t have immediate access to information about COVID-19. Distress is becoming widespread, and as a result, there’s been a negative impact on livelihood for everyone in the camp. Especially for girls and children.
But many of the girls in Cox’s Bazar are being protected by Beauty.
Beauty is one of Plan’s case management officers working with Rohingya refugee children in the camp. While everyone fears the devastating impact that COVID-19 could have in Cox’s Bazar, Beauty tries her best to sooth children’s worries. They, in return, promise that they will wash their hands regularly.
Plan staff has run COVID-19 information sessions; ensured water, hygiene and sanitation facilities are operational; distributed hygiene kits and continued child protection work. Staff wear personal protective equipment and undergo routine temperature checks to ensure the camp’s safety.
“My only thought is the wellbeing of the children and seeing the beautiful smiles on their faces,” Beauty says. But as the virus continues to spread, she still can’t help but worry. “If someone is infected, it will spread like wildfire before anyone realizes.”
Refugee girls in the camp were already living through an enormous humanitarian disaster. COVID-19 is amplifying the devastation. This is just the beginning, and the situation is likely to get much worse. Tomorrow is more uncertain than ever for girls in Cox’s Bazar.
But not all is lost. “I am not losing hope yet,” Meghla told us.