Human Rights Watch researchers on the border continue to document reports of rape and other sexual violence committed by Burmese soldiers against Rohingya women and girls. Skye Wheeler, emergencies researcher for the Women’s Rights Division, shares some of their stories.
One woman, still bearing injuries from her attack, described to Human Rights Watch how she was raped, beaten, and slashed with machetes by soldiers, before being left in a burning house. Another woman was taken to a hut with four others and sexually assaulted by soldiers, who then set the building on fire. She was the only one to escape to alive. Survivors of the massacre in Maung Nu village described how soldiers stripped women naked and “touched [them] everywhere.”
“We’re seeing pretty widespread rape and sexual assault on women,” Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director, told Al Jazeera. “In my 20 years working at Human Rights Watch, these are some of the most shocking and horrific abuses that I have documented. They really bring back memories of the genocide in Rwanda in terms of the level of hatred and extreme violence shown – especially towards women and children.”
Hundreds of refugees have been referred to health clinics in Cox’s Bazar for “life-saving care” due to injuries from gender-based violence. Yet these likely represent only a small number of the survivors of sexual violence among the 520,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh since late August. As the United Nations migration director general said in a recent statement:
Attempting to understand the scale of gender-based violence through known case numbers alone is impossible. This type of egregious violence and abuse is under-reported even in the best resourced and most stable settings worldwide. In crises like this, where usual social systems and protections are no longer in place, so many barriers stand in the way of survivors seeking support.
Widespread sexual violence by soldiers has long been a hallmark of the Burmese military’s culture of abuse and impunity. During the “clearance operations” in Rakhine State in late 2016, security forces committed rape and other sexual violence against ethnic Rohingya women and girls as young as 13. Human Rights Watch documented 28 incidents of rape and other sexual assault that took place from October to December. The sexual violence did not appear to be random or opportunistic, but part of a coordinated and systematic attack against the Rohingya population. More than half of the 101 women UN investigators interviewed for a February OHCHR report said they were raped or suffered other forms of sexual violence.