By Zia Choudhury

IN August last year, an influx of refugees arrived in Bangladesh, fleeing violence in Myanmar. As of February, more than 670,000 had fled across the border – making the exodus one of the fastest-growing refugee crises in the world.

Cox’s Bazar, the camp most of these people now call home, has become the most densely populated refugee settlement in the world. More than 880,000 are estimated to live there. Most arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Many were traumatised by violence and needed food, shelter, health services, water, clothes and protection.

This is a crisis on an unimaginable scale.

It has been six months since the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) launched its appeal for Myanmar refugees. In six months, your donations have been distributed among CARE and other agencies, and have been put into critical services for men, women and children who have fled violence.

Thanks to this, CARE has been able to focus on prioritising women and girls in emergencies. Whether younger or older, menstruating, pregnant or menopausal, all have specialised needs which require specialist solutions.

Our approach is particularly needed in Cox’s Bazar, where 70 per cent of inhabitants are women and children. Many of the women and girls who have fled Myanmar have experienced sexual violence. Many who have not been victims will likely have witnessed another person being assaulted.

For women to process what they have experienced, it is crucial they can access safe spaces. Every day, dozens of women visit women-only spaces set up by CARE, which provide private counselling and health checks. From here, they can also get referrals to specialist services should they need it.

Beyond this, the space provides an opportunity for women to socialise or just sit quietly with a cup of tea.

Our women-only spaces have provided a haven for people like Hamida*, who was raped before fleeing across the border. “I sent my children into the jungle and I went back to lock the door. It was too late – two men pushed through the door and grabbed me,” she told me with tears running down her face. “They raped me.” One of her children, Sohidul, was shot and killed. On arrival in Cox’s Bazar, Hamida’s husband left her for another woman. She now looks after her five remaining children alone. But being around other women means she can talk. “I find peace at the women’s centre,” she says.

CARE is also keen to lay the groundwork for long-term change.

That’s why, as part of our strategy to help women and girls, we are training other staff in the camp in counselling and psychosocial support, as well as first aid and prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse. We are also engaging men and boys in the prevention of sexual violence, and involving them in finding solutions to potential problems. For example, lamps have been established near bathing areas or toilets, where women may go at night.

Men and boys are also more alert to strangers offering opportunities that are too good to be true, like jobs in Dhaka factories – almost always used for trafficking women and children.

CARE has also been improving sanitation and hygiene – particularly to improve access to safe drinking water. Thanks to funds from the DEC, we have installed 27 deep tube wells that reach safe water and we plan 14 more. Recognising that cultural norms prevent many women refugees from sharing washing facilities with men, leading to poor hygiene and poor health, we have also constructed more than 525 women-friendly bathing spaces. More are in the works.

All this has been made possible thanks to your donations to the DEC.

What next? The oncoming monsoon season brings new challenges. Beginning in the next month or so, heavy rainfall will pummel the makeshift shelters. It might be October before the clouds clear.

According to the United Nations, over 100,000 people are at risk of seeing their homes washed away. The soil on which the camp was built last year is unable to absorb large amounts of water. Many more are at risk of landslides or an outbreak of water-borne diseases, as latrines overflow and contaminate drinking water.

CARE estimates that the situation of every single person living in Cox’s Bazar will drastically worsen – and we are running out of time. We desperately need public support to continue our crucial work, and to help communities through the following months.

We are already training people to build shelters that can withstand heavy rains and landslides, and providing them with tools to rebuild those that are damaged. So far we have distributed equipment to around 22,000 refugees. We have also connected new drains and are building steps, clearing roads, installing streetlamps and trash bins, as well as more wells and latrines.

More than 800 families whose homes teeter atop hills have been relocated.

It is a race against time, and refugees are bracing themselves for what is to come. But they’re not alone – we are still here with them. Thanks to you.

*Name changed to protect identity

Zia Choudhury is country director of CARE Bangladesh