Rohingya refugee and community outreach volunteer Beauty Akther works with Rohingya women to raise awareness about gender-based violence in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
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Why vital programs for refugee women are at risk

Funding shortfalls mean initiatives to stop gender-based violence may be cut.

When violence broke out in their native Myanmar, Beauty and her young family fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, but the safety she found there was undermined by the unpredictability of her husband’s mood.

“My husband never did any work,” says the 25-year-old Rohingya refugee, who lives in one of the 17 camps at Cox’s Bazar, which house almost one million refugees. “He gambled and was violent.” 

Desperate for a different life, Beauty joined SASA, a UNHCR-backed initiative that trains young refugees to raise awareness of the effects of gendered violence. Volunteers share information with their communities at mosques, tea stalls, community centres and by going door-to-door, receiving a small stipend for their work. Male volunteers identify those perpetrating violence through their networks or via first-hand evidence, and approach them privately to explain the damage their behaviour causes. 

The results are transformative. “Since I joined SASA, I was able to educate my husband,” says Beauty. “Now he has changed. If I am sick, he cooks for me, or if the children are sick, he takes them to the clinic. Before, people never understood the impact of this violence on their families. Because of our programme, people understand better and are changing.”

Yet despite its success, programs like SASA – and many others that provide essential services such as education and livelihoods training – may be cut, because of a lack of funds. 

This shortfall reached $700 million globally in October 2022, according to UNHCR’s Underfunded report, released late last year – just as the number of displaced people worldwide reached its highest-ever level.

The report identified 12 countries, including Bangladesh, that were particularly vulnerable to cuts. Programs in Bangladesh are only 42 per cent funded, amounting to a staggering $165 million funding gap. Jordan’s programs are only 37 per cent funded, while several African nations, such as Ethiopia and Sudan, face similar shortfalls.

Rohingya refugee and community outreach volunteer Beauty Akther works with Rohingya women to raise awareness about gender-based violence in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
Beauty says joining SASA has helped her to educate her husband. © UNHCR/Saikat Mojumder

Last month, UNHCR issued a call for the international community to step up its financial support for Bangladesh in particular.

“This is a real, immediate emergency call with people’s lives and livelihoods on the line,” says Dominique Hyde, Director of UNHCR’s Division for External Relations. “While donors have once again been generous, new wars – especially in Ukraine – and unresolved crises mean that funding is not keeping up with the needs of millions of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

As UNHCR notes in Underfunded, Ukrainians have received the kind of welcome that should be afforded to all refugees, with access to safety and protection, health and wellbeing programmes, and a surge in funding from public and private donors. 

But the conflict has also exacerbated problems elsewhere. Skyrocketing inflation and food shortages globally mean that basic necessities—electricity, fuel, and food, to name a few—are more expensive to provide than ever, taking up a larger proportion of UNHCR budgets and limiting its ability to provide other necessary goods and services. 

Private donors, both organisations and individuals, already play a vital role in supporting UNHCR’s life-saving work and they are set to become even more important in the years ahead.

In Bangladesh, the lack of funds has already forced the World Food Programme to cut food assistance to all Rohingya living in the camps. Almost half of all Rohingya families are not eating a sufficiently healthy diet and malnutrition is widespread. These ration cuts are likely to result in higher malnutrition rates, deteriorating health, school dropouts, increased incidents of child marriage, child labour and gender-based violence.

In the last five years, UNHCR has established 47 service points for gender-based violence survivors living in Cox’s Bazar, offering case management, psychosocial support and referrals. There are over 1,000 community volunteers working on gender-based violence prevention and response. Women and girls’ safe spaces offer a confidential haven, while community engagement centres allow men to decompress and learn about the issues.

For Beauty, the SASA program has changed her husband and it’s made her life much easier. She’s adamant these initiatives should continue “for the future wellbeing of the community.” 

Rohingya refugee volunteers combat gender-based violence in Kutupalong
Rohingya refugee and community outreach volunteer Beauty works with Rohingya women to raise awareness about gender-based violence in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. © UNHCR/Saikat Mojumder

The Leading Women Fund is a dynamic community of Australian women supporting their Syrian refugee sisters. Donations to the Leading Women Fund provide cash assistance to help women provide for their families.


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