In times of crisis we must work especially hard to protect our women and girls.

  • Articles and op-ed

In conflicts and crises across the world, women and girls can suffer terrible abuses. The UN estimates that seven in 10 women are exposed to violence in crises. The risk of abuse increases when they flee without the family or community networks that would normally support them, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking or assault. 

The trauma of such experiences cannot be overstated, severely affecting mental and physical health. Many victims suffer long-term trauma and struggle to return to a normal life. 

In October, Shakila* left Rakhine State in Myanmar after she was raped and her family was killed. She fled to Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh where she has received medical assistance and counselling for the sexual violence and trauma she experienced. 

Shakila is just one of more than 620,000 Rohingya who have escaped violence in Rakhine State since August, 2017. 

This mass exodus of civilians brings with it horrifying tales of large-scale sexual violence against women and girls. A significant percentage of those who have fled Myanmar report having experienced or witnessed sexual violence in Rakhine State and remain vulnerable to violence and exploitation once they reach Bangladesh. 

In Cox's Bazar, around 33,000 Rohingya women and girls have sought assistance for sexual or physical violence since August 25. Over the next five months, almost 450,000 women and girls are expected to need help. 

To help meet the needs of those who have fled to Bangladesh, Australia has provided $30 million in assistance, including $1.5 million to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) -- an agency focused on preventing and responding to sexual violence against women and girls. Our assistance is supporting the provision of critical medical and counselling services, including establishing 35 safe places where thousands of women and girls can access support services. 

The Australian Government is also supporting a joint appeal with leading humanitarian agencies to assist Rohingya who have fled violence in Myanmar, including women and girls. We are matching donations to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Australian Red Cross on a dollar-for-dollar basis, up to a total of $5 million. 

In Cox's Bazar, UNHCR is working to protect vulnerable people from further harm. This includes making sure new camps are set up as securely as possible, for example by installing lighting and ensuring easy access to toilets during the night for women and children. UNHCR is also providing shelter to more than 250,000 people, which is helping to reduce the risks for women of sleeping in the open. 

The high level of sexual violence experienced by Rohingya women and girls is not unique. This is why protecting women and girls is one of Australia's priorities in responding to humanitarian crises. 

In Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, Australia is supporting the provision of essential services to women and girls who have survived sexual and physical violence. These localised projects have a significant impact on the lives of those needing help. 

Since 2016, Australia's work in Afghanistan has supported nearly 1,700 female survivors of violence to receive counselling and 800 women to access shelters to escape violence in their homes. 

We must all make it clear that violence against women and girls anywhere and at any time is not acceptable. During times of crisis we must work especially hard to protect women and girls when they are at their most vulnerable. 

* Not her real name.

Media enquiries