Empowering Rohingya women through mental health care and counselling


Over a decade ago, 16-year-old Faresa from Rakhine State of Myanmar was like any ordinary teen, dreaming of a happy marriage and kids. Her life turned upside down when she left her parents’ home to marry a man called Ahmed. After 2 years of marriage, Faresa gave birth to a baby girl, followed by stillbirth the next year. She never conceived again.

In a society that puts a premium on women’s childbearing capacity and expects women to have many children, Faresa’s inability to conceive beyond her only child cost her all relationships. In-laws, parents, and later Ahmed, deserted her and her daughter.

Faresa started blaming herself for her infertility and gradually accepted beatings from Ahmed.

In August 2017, armed men burned down her entire neighbourhood in Rakhine State to ashes. Rapes, murders and detention of thousands of Rohingya followed. Faresa ran away with her child and husband to reach the shores of neighbouring Bangladesh. The trauma of her forced displacement continually added misery to her life. The only hope that kept Faresa going was her daughter.

Overcoming trauma

At one of the food distribution points in the refugee camp, Faresa attended a mental health awareness session organised by ACF’s community mobilisation staff. She learnt that her nightmares, insomnia, loss of interest in daily activities and feelings of unworthiness are symptoms of psychological distress. She was told that if she gathers the strength to talk about it, she could well overcome it.

Faresa recalls she took her first step towards a better life when she spoke with Hasina, a psychosocial worker facilitating ACF’s awareness-raising sessions.

Mental health awareness sessions organised in the community: a first step in overcoming frustrations and anxieties of refugee life. ©Rebeka Rashed/ACF.

Upon learning of Faresa’s turmoil and daily hardships, Hasina invited her to join the peer support group organised at a camp women’s centre, known as Shanti Khana, or house of peace.

“As a woman who had been beaten, it took me longer to identify with women of my age gathered at Shanti Khana”, Faresa recalls. “My problem was unique. All of them are having 5-7 kids and were still being beaten up by husbands or chased, molested and threatened by strangers. Later I realised that this is how my society treats women, with or without children.”

Faresa was later introduced to Rebeka, a psychologist at the Shanti Khana, who regularly assists women survivors in providing emotional support, helping with practical safety responses in the face of violence, and enhancing the survivors’ social network.

Erasing patriarchal norms

Faresa’s involvement in psychosocial activities took a blow when Ahmed stopped her from visiting Shanti Khana. When Rebeka and her psychosocial workers approached Ahmed at the family shelter, he refused to meet, driving them away on multiple occasions.

Instead of forcing Ahmed to comply, Rebeka asked the local community leader, the Majhi, to help organise a men’s group, and invited Ahmed to attend. An ACF male psychosocial worker, Mamun, started engaging the group with discussions centred on challenging cultural patriarchal norms.

Gradually, he helped group members to find ways to be supportive as partners and caretakers of women, providing a sense of safety and security in the camps. Ahmed’s participation in these sessions has helped him calm his anger towards Faresa, as well as the psychosocial team supporting her.

A gathering of an ACF-organised men’s group. ©Samiul Haque/ACF.

Thanks to EU humanitarian funding, Action Against Hunger has:

  • trained 35 Bangladeshi psychologists in trauma-related mental health interventions
  • engaged the refugee and host communities through a team of 70 skilled psychosocial workers and nearly 100 community mental health volunteers.

Nearly 18,000 women and girls as well as 5,000 men and boys receive the assistance.

After a year, Faresa now seems to have regained some normalcy. She has sought treatment for her infertility. Ahmed has become more respectful and supportive.

“Rohingya women and men need a listening ear,” Farisa says. “There are many women like me trapped in the daily struggles of a refugee life. When I have been helped, I can extend my help toward many others.”

Faresa in her new role of Community Mental Health Facilitator, Shanti Phoyaza is voluntarily supporting the larger cause of reducing women’s suffering and enhancing their mental health and well-being. ©Rebeka Rashed/ACF.

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