Humanitarian crisis

Supermodel-turned-maternal health advocate brings relief to Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh

Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, walk after they received permission from the Bangladesh army to continue their way to the Kutupalong refugee camp, in Balukhali near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. (REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra)

More than 500,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar seeking refuge in nearby Bangladesh since August. That accounts for half of Burma’s extremely persecuted ethnic minority Rohingya population.

Although the group has been oppressed by the Burmese military and government for decades, this recent exodus can be traced back to a 2012 conflict, which led to a spike in violence that has only intensified over the years.

As makeshift refugee camps continue to multiply in and around Bangladesh’s coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, the endless stream of Rohingya refugees bring with them horror stories of watching their villages burned to the ground, their babies thrown in the fire, mass gang-raping of women, and the beheading of children, all allegedly committed by the Myanmar army.

Not only are the vast majority of these refugees women and children who are in desperate need of food, shelter, sanitation and medical care, but thousands of women are pregnant, most with very-high risk pregnancies from extreme stress and malnutrition. To make matters worse, the Cox’s Bazar region already has the highest maternal mortality and morbidity rates in Bangladesh, a sad phenomenon that’s been further intensified by the Rohingya influx.

The American-based nonprofit organization Every Mother Counts (EMC), founded by American model-turned-maternal health advocate and social entrepreneur Christy Turlington Burns, was quick to deploy its resources on the ground in Bangladesh to address the ballooning reproductive health care emergency head on.

Supermodel and founder of Every Mother Counts Christy Turlington Burns. (Kassia Meador / Every Mother Counts)

“Given the impact most disasters have on mothers and children we wanted to be prepared to offer support quickly and directly to partner organizations already working on the ground with vulnerable populations in crisis,” Turlington Burns tells me.

And that is exactly what EMC is doing in Bangladesh. By partnering with local organization, HOPE Foundation for Women and Children, EMC deployed a maternal and child health emergency grant, marking the second such funding by EMC to HOPE, to go toward transportation for volunteer midwives, 10 mobile clinics, and the building of a 40-bed field hospital within the refugee settlement area that will provide primary, maternity, emergency, and mental health care.

“Since August, over 500,000 Rohingya people crossed the Myanmar border and took refuge in the southern border of Bangladesh,” Turlington Burns explains. “The majority of these refugees are mothers, some of whom are pregnant or with small children.”

Having an established partnership with the Hope Foundation in Bangladesh, who works in Cox’s Bazaar, where so many Rohingya have been displaced, provided us the opportunity to help in a timely way.”

And in such a critical crisis situation, timing is everything. Since August, experts estimate that around 200 Rohingya babies have been born. In September, the Bangladeshi government announced it would be providing birth control kits to Rohingya women.

Turlington Burns points out that with Bangladesh’s own population challenges, this is a challenge they should approach but with caution.

“Family planning is just one of many unmet needs that is needed,” she says. “If the Rohingya are asking for this, then it should be an option for them but there could be trust issues to overcome given the source of these birth control kits. Bangladesh is already challenged with population growth and this will inevitably be a long-term situation as with any refugees crisis so this is something to address sooner than later.”

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) also stipulates that Rohingya women and girls, who were already at great risk of sexual violence at home in Rakhine, are even more vulnerable now and doubly victimized being displaced in Cox’s Bazar.

“Accessing maternal health care is challenging enough for so many women, but when they are forced from their homes and countries they are especially vulnerable,” Turlington Burns says. “Some of these refugees are pregnant already, others may become pregnant while displaced. Many others have small children to feed and protect. I can only imagine how terrifying this must be for them.”

A Rohingya woman and her baby are seen in an informal settlement September 15, 2017 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh since late August. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Turlington Burns highlights the importance of people hearing first-hand accounts from the ground. She says illustrating the challenges and solutions for women’s reproductive health care through strong emotional storytelling is something EMC is very focused on.

“It’s one thing to be told and another to experience,” Turlington Burns says. “Every statistic has a story and a name and we are telling these stories and the public is starting to engage as a result.”

Turlington Burns knows first hand the complications of childbirth and how easy it is for women to die in pregnancy-related complications because she experienced it herself after having her first child. The experience compelled Turlington Burns to get involved in maternal health advocacy, leading to her No Woman, No Cry documentary about maternal health challenges that impact the lives of millions of girls and women around the world.

In 2010, she launched EMC to heighten awareness about the global maternal health crisis. Last year, EMC was recognized as one of Fast Company magazine’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in the Not-For-Profit space.

Today, despite believing that “until everyone has the same access none of us has arrived,” Turlington Burns says she is positive about the future of feminism.

“It is happening all around us,” Turlington Burns tells me. “Never in my life has the topic been so front and center in the discourse and young people are listening and a part of it. I think it will continue to evolve through and feminism will be something that is individualized and that is healthy and more sustainable than previous times in history.”

With the work EMC is doing for the Rohingya, hopefully their future will be just as healthy and sustainable.

Anushay Hossain is a writer and media personality based in Washington, D.C. For more, visit AnushaysPoint.com

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is independent of and separate from any views of The New York Times.