The widows who’ve formed a sisterhood in a refugee camp
Grief, childcare, sexual violence – how camp refugees are facing it all together
Last updated 4 August 2023
She holds an old tin box that she’s brought with her from home. She’s travelled far with it – over five rivers and through three forests. What’s inside? Eight fraying photographs, all with the same azure background, of her family. Some of them she will likely never see again.
In a camp where most people have lost family members, she’s lucky to have these photos to remind her of her husband. This is Dil. She fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2017 and now lives in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh – the world’s biggest refugee camp. Hundreds of thousands of people still live here, two years on.
For women without husbands, life isn’t exactly safe. So Dil has joined a widow’s block in Kutupalong camp, where vulnerable women and children can live and look after each other. The women’s husbands are either dead, missing, or unable to leave Myanmar.
Emotional and practical support is what’s found here – from sharing grief to help with cooking and childcare. People in the camp are also helped with food, clean water, shelter materials and medical support from the Red Cross.
This sense of community is all the more important when your home is made of flimsy tarpaulin and bamboo. The threat of cyclones and monsoons is ever present.
The widow’s block also helps women avoid sexual violence elsewhere in the camp. Men here prey on women when they wash or use latrine blocks. Men also suggest marriage arrangements that women don’t believe to be genuine.
Staying clean and healthy is difficult enough without the threat of violence. The nearby streams are polluted and the extreme weather sees dust blowing into shelters, while floods bring mud and contaminated water.
Dil’s photos are a reminder of how happy she used to be. But they also remind her of what she has lost. Her son-in-law, pictured next to her daughter and grandchildren, is still missing, and presumed dead.
Mother-of-three Amina Khatun is another member of the widow’s block.
Her husband has been missing for three and a half years. She was 25 when she fled to Bangladesh with her mother and other villagers.
Khushida Begum, 45, lost her husband and her daughter in the violence in Myanmar.
When she fled, she lost the rest of her family in the confusion. She has since been reunited with five of her children – but she has had no news of another.
“I hope they will bring news of my son and bring him back to me,” she said. “I would sacrifice my life for him.”
Despite all the hardships, Dil says her community has rallied around those in need, including her family.
“We don’t have to feel scared now,” she said. “We never expected that we’d get some relief and be able to eat here.
“Our villagers are also here, and there are also people from other villages. We are living here like siblings.”
Having reached this relative safety, Dil’s thoughts turned to the future and her daughters.
“I don’t know what our future life will be [like],” she said. “I am very worried about my daughters’ [future], because I’m not able to get them married.”
She’s afraid to go back to Myanmar. But she also worries about her family’s prospects if they stay in the camp.
“I don’t have any mother, brothers, anyone here,” she said. “I was an only child, there is no one to help my children. I can’t even get them food, so how can I get them married?”
There is a lot to worry about for Dil and the other widows in Cox’s Bazar. But at least now they have each other for support – and a strong sense of community to ease the pain of losing loved ones.
Every refugee matters to us
We work with refugees and people seeking asylum to help them feel safe, live with dignity and build a new life. If, like us, you believe that every refugee matters, get involved by donating below.Donate