Cox’s Bazar, refugee camp
Makeshift Rohingya camp at Balukhali, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
‘The Rohingya women tell stories of their murdered husbands and rape, of losing hope in human-kind.’ – Source & photo credit: UN Women.

By Regina M. Paulose, Secretariat, Congress of Nations and States

Around the world, widows constitute a vulnerable group who continue to face social stigmas and barriers to continuing to live a life with dignity after a loved one has passed away. Some of these challenges include lack of meaningful access to education, employment, and in many cases, widows are vulnerable to discrimination and violence. In addition to these prevalent issues, COVID -19 has been dubbed the “widow-maker.”

In Myanmar, state terror has been unleashed by the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) which took control of the country on February 1, 2021 in a coup de etat. State terror creates a climate of fear, so that those who want to oppose the Tatmadaw are deterred from continuing their activities. The United Nations Security Council has expressed deep concern over the violence which has left almost 3 million people in need of assistance while people have been forced to flee their homes. This level of violence has undoubtedly created a large population of widows.

Khet Thi was a poet who had taken a pro-democracy stance against the junta after the coup. One evening soldiers and police surrounded his home and took Khet Thi, and his wife, Chaw Su, and his brother, away for questioning as a result of their activities opposing the coup. After being interrogated, Chaw Su was told her husband had died from heart failure in the hospital. However, she noted that his head was injured and his organs removed. Since her husband’s death, she has been under constant surveillance by the police.

There are millions of people within Myanmar that are in great need of assistance because they do not fit into the state policy of “Burmanization.” Indigenous and Ethnic minority groups throughout Myanmar are victims and survivors of state terror that has been perpetrated by the military, prior to and after February 1, 2021. These groups have significant populations of widows as a result of the state sponsored violence which has targeted their communities.

Communities such as the Karen, Chin, Rohingya, Mon, Hmong, and Kachin are facing extraordinary problems, because the Tatmadaw mainly targets these groups because of their ethnic and religious identities. The Karen Human Rights Group, has reported that within their communities, the military has abducted villagers and used them as human shields, while they continue with their clearance operations. The Human Rights Foundation of Monland has reported that Mon people are subjected to military checkpoints where their possessions are taken from them and family members are taken hostage. The Myanmar military has continued to use sexual violence as a weapon, undeterred by the international outcry that took place in 2017 after its most recent genocidal purge of the Rohingya of the Arakan. The Arakan Rohingya National Organisation recently called upon the international community to take action to stop the ongoing military offensives against the Chin community, where women are also being subjected to sexual violence. The Rohingya are aware of the ramifications of this type of violence, as their community has a large group of widows residing in Bangladesh.

While a significant set of data is missing, it is safe to assume that there is a large population of widows among these communities. Women within these Indigenous and Ethnic groups become internally displaced or are forced to flee their traditional homeland. This creates vulnerabilities for widows in particular, who normally may have large community support and sustenance where they live but now are dependent on humanitarian aid to survive. As a result of displacement, many of the women from these particular communities are vulnerable to human trafficking and child marriage.

In addition, the justice system cannot come to their rescue. Access to justice remains elusive for women in Burma. As significant violations of human rights are perpetrated against Indigenous and Ethnic communities throughout the country, the legal system remains paralyzed, providing little to no hope for widows who may seek justice and/or compensation for the wrongs that have been perpetrated. In December 2020 it was reported that a Rohingya widow, whose husband was killed by the Tatmadaw in 2017, filed a complaint for compensation through Myanmar’s Human Rights Commission. It was the first known complaint filed by a Rohingya woman through the Commission’s mechanism. Cases such as this, particularly in the time of the coup, are not likely to be filed or be heard.

It is important that during the #16daysofActivism that the international community move beyond catchy hashtags and take action where it is needed for widows around the world and particularly in Myanmar. There is a significant lack of data and information regarding widows in Burma. In addition, there is without question a dire need to provide humanitarian aid, particularly COVID 19 and food assistance, to women and children so that they may not become vulnerable to other threats. A global arms embargo must be imposed on the Tatmadaw and the international community must utilize international law to call for a cessation to the violence in the country which is producing more widows.