UN Women and Rohingya women on the front line of COVID-19 response



The world in lockdown has created a profound shock to our societies and economies, and women are at the heart of care and response efforts underway. Primarily as caregivers, women are not just sustaining families, but also serving as front-line responders, mainly in the health and service sector.

In Cox’s Bazar, where the world’s largest refugee camp lies, Rohingya women face further increased gender-based violence due to the heightened tension within households and within the camp. This heightened tension is often caused from restrictions on income generating activities needed to sustain families. Despite these odds, Rohingya women are serving as front-line workers to protect their families and communities. One unique way they are doing this is by producing masks to fill a significant gap of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the market.

Over 50,000 masks are being produced and the manufacturing is being managed by partners in UN Women’s five multi-purpose Women’s centers in the camps, engaging 163  Rohingya women and girls with 46 families run as single female headed households.

One of them, Shetara, a 25-year-old Rohingya woman was trained by one of UN Women’s partner organisations. A mother of 3 children, she fled to Bangladesh during the 2017 outbreak of armed conflict in Rakhine State, Myanmar, when her husband was killed. Back in Rakhine State, her family was self-sufficient owning land and livestock.

But now in the refugee camp, like more than 859,000 refugees, she is fully reliant on humanitarian aid, just to survive. With the mask production, she is now able to earn 2,720 BDT, that equals to 32 USD per week. This is her first ever income and the highest her family has ever earned. Shetara is happy, “I have money to celebrate Eid and I hope to earn more for my children’s education and for my family”

Nur Ankich is also part of the mask production. She is still a teenager, but already the breadwinner for her family of ten. In a week, she has earned around 40USD and this helps tend to her sick father. Despite  her newfound economic freedom Nur Ankich mobility is limited to the UN Women’s center. Conservative gender norms are very prevalent in the Rohingya community, with restrictions and scrutiny on behavior, conduct and  mobility. UN Women is trying to address these conservative gender norms through engaging with men and leaders in the community through gender-transformative social norms change programs, as well as by offering women opportunities for income-generation, education and leadership. Nur says, “I hope I can study and also learn more handicraft skills so I can earn more”.

Another Rohingya women fully occupied in masks production. Photo: UN Women/Nadira Islam

The mask production project in the camps has quickly taken the interest of other humanitarian actors as well. “There have been days when I was giving information on managing mask production, back-to-back for hours and the calls kept pouring in”, says Nadira Islam, UN Women Gender Programme Officer.  To this date, various NGOs are reaching out to Nadira to visit UN Women’s multi-purpose women’s centers to observe how production is being managed.

UN Women with its partners BRAC and Action Aid Bangladesh started masks production in the camps by mobilizing women previously trained in tailoring. Various self-mobilised Rohingya women’s groups, including the Rohingya Women Empowerment and Advocacy Network and the Rohingya Women for Justice and Peace Network  have also mobilized to respond to the Corona virus outbreak including  mask production in their homes, thereby demonstrating leadership and empowerment they have developed.

These women’s networks form part of the Rohingya Women’s Leaders Umbrella network which was established a year ago with UN Women’s technical and financial support. UN Women provided these grassroots women’s networks with sewing machines, material support and training to further scale-up their mask production.

While other income-generating activities in the camps are put on-hold during the lockdown to prevent spread of COVID-19, this mask production project has kept the women engaged, giving them an opportunity to contribute to emergency response efforts, support and protect their community and generate income to sustain their family’s basic needs. Being able to come to the Multi-Purpose Women Centres to work on mask production together with other Rohingya women, they also say is important for them to get a chance to leave their homes and get their minds off the tension and anxiety among their family members right now.

Managing rapid life-saving mask production, amidst the lockdown, has not been an easy task. It has required end-to-end management, procurement of materials, mobilizing women, packaging, disinfection of masks, ensuring production meets approved samples and ensuring effective coordination overall. This has been achieved through astounding combined efforts of the teams from UN Women, AAB, BRAC and most importantly the Rohingya women and their networks.

This project has also required close coordination with the Government. Prior to starting production, Nadira sprang into action by meeting government representatives amidst the lockdown. The Office of the Refugee Relief Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) understood the gravity of the situation and provided expedited approval for UN Women to start mask production. “Despite restrictions, the Government of Bangladesh has shown genuine commitment to supporting the Rohingya community and especially enabling women’s contribution as first responders to this emergency by allowing this special exception for Rohingya women to be engaged in mask production” said Flora Macula, Head of Cox’s Bazar Sub-office.

Beyond the camps, UN Women is also engaging Bangladeshi women from the local community in Cox’s Bazar in the production of masks at a smaller scale, together with a local women’s rights organisation Jago-Nari Unnayan Sangstha (JNUS) and Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) to further support filling in the gaps in the market for masks.

UN Women is also preparing samples for various other items like bedsheets, curtains and other items that could be required if the COVID-19 situation escalates in Cox’s Bazar.  Apart from mask production, supply and distribution, UN Women is also conducting awareness raising and outreach sessions through 75 community volunteers to ensure the community, particularly women, are informed on infection prevention and control to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Regular consultations are ongoing with the community to identify solutions to COVID-19 response and preparedness efforts in the camps and host communities in Cox’s Bazar.

Through UN Women’s Multi-Purpose Women Centres and the UN Women supported Women and Children Police Help desks in camps, UN Women is also providing critical life-saving services to women and girls including paramedic services, psychosocial counselling, sexual and reproductive health care through midwives, case management and referrals for gender based violence survivors (including domestic violence, trafficking, rape and harassment).