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Education: The Only Tool for Freedom of Rohingya Women in Rakhine State

Maria Begum is a medical doctor who works as the Program Coordinator with the Center for Social Integrity (CSI), our local partner in Myanmar. Our Conflict Response Fund in Myanmar helps provide education for women and girls. As a Rohingya woman, she shares how education shaped her life and how the power of education can influence adolescent girls.  

Education is the most powerful tool for everyone to be independent. For me personally, education was the only source of power as a girl belonging to a marginalized group in Myanmar. I was born into a Rohingya family in Yangon. Throughout my childhood, I was not aware of the military regime’s persecution of Rohingya people. When I was 18, my parents were quite anxious about my National Registration Card application. My parents never attended university but they consider education to be the only thing they can give their children to have a better future. My parents managed to get us a National Registration Card, similar to a national ID in other countries, identifying us as Bengali. Of course, my father was unhappy as it made us lose our Rohingya identity – at least on paper. However, he said that we had to accept it as we needed it to study at university. 

After I got a medical degree, I served for almost three years as a government doctor in conflict affected areas. I had to quit in 2011 when my mother passed away. Working in those areas made me aware of the suffering of ethnic minorities, especially women and children. In 2012, after violent conflict in Rakhine State killed hundreds of people, I began my journey of activism as a feminist. I saw that the suffering of men and women in conflicts is not the same. I came to understand the situation of women in Myanmar, and more generally the intersectional discrimination against women from ethnic minorities and inequalities among different groups based on gender, class, religion and ethnicity. I started working with women’s organizations like the Women Peace Network and became a gender trainer in training offered by UNDP. 

Maria Begum
Maria Begun distributing essential kits to Rohingya women.

Although I was raised in a patriarchal family, living in Yangon gives me relatively more freedom than Rohingya women experience in Rakhine State. In Rohingya communities in Rakhine State, the majority of Rohingya families cannot afford to send their children to high school due to discrimination, poor transportation, restrictions on movement, insecurity and poverty. Most of the girls are married off before even turning 18, and don’t get a chance to attend high school or even middle school. Many Rohingya people receive only religious education as they have no other options. 

Patriarchal traditions make girls’ lives harder. The role of women is defined as a homemaker and a mother in our community. Mostly, girls don’t get a chance to study after puberty which makes them vulnerable in every aspect of their lives. I graduated with a Master’s degree in Australia and travelled to several countries by myself. The one thing which gives me confidence and independence is the education that I have attained. That’s why I would like to see these opportunities for all women in Rakhine State. For this reason, I am work at a local NGO in Myanmar, where I implement non-formal education programs for adolescent girls and women in Rakhine state. Our organization, CSI, offers non-formal education to adolescent girls from all ethnic groups. We also mainstream social cohesion into our education program so as to build tolerance and peace among diverse ethnic groups of Rakhine State. 

The funding received by Women for Women International is very important for us to continue offering non-formal education opportunities to adolescent girls in Rakhine State. Additionally, to really empower girls and to achieve gender equality, we not only mainstream gender in our programs but also include adolescent and women education programs and provide women’s rights training in our other projects. 

When we implement education projects, we face many of the barriers I described above which prevent girls from joining our programs. Lack of education is not only the root cause of women’s vulnerability but also a symptom of oppression and discrimination against women in our society. Therefore, when we have the chance to offer education programs to girls and women, we make sure our curriculum includes not only basic education skills but also life skills, including health education, critical thinking, reproductive education, gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s leadership. It is very important to give participants the tools to fight for their rights and to be able to make decisions for themselves. 

Rohingya Girls Life Skills Classes in Myanmar
Rohingya girls receive life skills classes through CSI.

In my experience working in Northern Rakhine State, I have seen many great examples of youth being empowered through our transformational leadership program. Both young men and women became change makers when they had the opportunity to learn and work. I believe the adolescent education project funded by Women for Women International will produce similar outcomes. To continue to make a change in the lives of young women and men, we need the support of our partners. For example, with additional funding we would be able to support tertiary level education of young women from Rakhine State. We also seek to partner with local and regional women’s groups to collaborate and formulate common strategies. 

This example shows how bringing partners from different areas together can make a great positive impact on the lives of underprivileged and disadvantaged groups. In my case, a local feminist working together with an NGO and their team, community workers, and an international donor like Women for Women International is helping girls and women access education which would otherwise have been out of their reach. Imagine what else is possible if we team up. 

The author's name has been changed for privacy of the individual.

Photos: © Center for Social Integrity

Woman has arms wrapped around child in her lap
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