From a Rohingya refugee’s perspective, who is local – and why does it matter?

Razia Sultana Gender, Power Shifts, Refugees and IDPs

Interactions between refugee women and aid workers with little connection to Rohingya culture can go terribly wrong, says Razia Sultana of Oxfam partner RW Welfare Society. To win women’s trust, INGOs need to engage with whoever is ‘as local as possible

Razia Sultana (right) offers support to a Rohingya woman at a centre for women founded by RWWS. Photo: Fabeha Monir

Like refugees all over the world, the Rohingya from Myanmar have fled their country  with their lives but little more. They have lost their homes, their belongings, and their communities, and find themselves having to look to aid providers for assistance of every description. And, like refugees everywhere, when they look at their providers, they see foreigners.

Since the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016, there has been a push to shift the role of international agencies from one of leading emergency responses to one of supporting the leadership of more local organisations – groups that understand the language, culture, and context of the people they are trying to help. But from a refugee’s perspective, who is local? And why does it matter?

We need aid workers who can build real trust

All disasters inflict trauma, but women and girls fleeing armed conflicts and sexual violence have in many cases had their trust in human beings shaken to the core. A thoughtful aid provider of any nationality can build a relationship of trust with these women by conveying respect and caring. But there are times when I see people with few or no links to Rohingya culture trying to interact with the refugees – trying, for example, to help a girl who is reporting a rape – and the interactions go terribly wrong, in part because the aid providers lack the language skills and cultural sensitivity that are required.

Building trust must be the centerpiece of the aid response, and it is the people who spend most time with the refugees, like the field-level staff of local organizations, who are most likely to make or break that trust.

I am the director of a local women’s rights organisation in Bangladesh, known as the RW (Rights for Women) Welfare Society, or RWWS. We are assisting Rohingya women and girls in the camps of Cox’s Bazar, where they face violations of their rights every hour of every day.

‘In the humanitarian system, the human skills that local organisations bring to the job are in many cases not valued as highly as an organisation’s ability to look good on paper’

They fled Myanmar in a brutal crackdown and now live in overcrowded conditions where, in observance of purdah, they are largely confined to their cramped emergency shelters. They are not allowed to take part in important decisions that affect their lives, which translates into lack of access to education, information, and health facilities, and to justice when they have been mistreated.

Yet, they are powerful and brave. Survivors who – against all odds – have not given up on the idea that they deserve the rights that have been taken from them.

How our strong connections help women in their struggles

To the extent that COVID risks allow, the staff and volunteers of my organisation make house-to-house visits and organise women’s self-help groups. We run two women’s centres: one for refugees in a camp and one for women in a host community. Staff members speak Chittagonian, a local language that Rohingya speakers can understand, and the fact that I myself was born to a Rohingya family in Myanmar means the people who work for me are relatively well informed about Rohingya culture and experience.

We think our strong connection to the Rohingya and host community is one reason we are making headway.

Women are fighting their way to our women’s centres over the objections of conservative family members and religious authorities. There, they gain access to basic education; training to develop a source of income; information about their rights; and for refugees, trauma therapy. Some of the women who were once living under the thumbs of their husbands, subject to confinement and violence, have gained the knowledge and confidence they need to take their complaints to higher authorities and win.

The women trust us with their stories and invite us to join hands with them in their struggles.

It’s time to recognise the skills of every organisation

Yet, we are perpetually short of funds for our work. Local NGOs may have our fingers on the pulse of the community, but when it comes to the funding and planning processes for humanitarian response, we are at the tail end of the process. We are practically an afterthought.

Of course, organisations like ours may not be strong or experienced in all areas, but with the support of funders and more established groups, we can quickly get up to speed. We can hire people to help us with finance and administration. We can borrow staff from other groups – as we have done with Oxfam – to develop our expertise on logistics, monitoring and evaluation, and other key areas of operation.

Many of these skills are straightforward compared to those we regularly employ in the communities, like helping a traumatised mother gain hope and confidence, negotiating with angry members of a host community, or trying to prevent child marriage and domestic violence.

But in the humanitarian system where we work, the human skills that local organisations bring to the job are in many cases not valued as highly as an organisation’s ability to look good on paper.

As local as possible

While RWWS cannot be considered local by a community that is far from home, perhaps with my Myanmar Rohingya roots we are what the UN Secretary-General called for at the 2016 summit: “as local as possible.”

For INGOs and other funders looking to help women and girls in refugee populations around the world, it is important to engage with whoever is as local as possible. Seek out groups within the refugee community, and diaspora groups from the refugees’ home countries. Give them the resources they need, and elevate their voices and influence in the humanitarian system, because they will have access to knowledge and insights that outsiders lack. And because they can help build a strong foundation for the entire response: the trust of the women.


Razia Sultana

Razia Sultana is a human rights activist, educator, lawyer and founder of the Bangladeshi NGO RW Welfare Society (RWWS), an Oxfam partner

Read this powerful story about Razia Sultana’s work with refugee women. The above article was first published under the headline ‘The trust of the women’ on Oxfam America’s Politics Of Poverty blog