: 2019  |  Volume : 17  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 316--318

How social constructs take precedence over religious beliefs in Rohingya refugees

Ayat Ajaz Shah 
 MBBS, Public Health Intern, UNHCR Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Correspondence Address:
Ayat Ajaz Shah
Public Health Unit, UNHCR Bangladesh Sub-Office, Motel Road, 4700 Cox’s Bazar


As a public health intern of UNHCR Bangladesh, I reflect on my learning from the story of 16-year-old Rohingya refugee, Husna,1 after she was sexually abused by a neighbour in the Rohingya refugee camp she resides in. Husna began to regularly visit a counselling centre which she found helpful, but she also said that her reliance on her faith of Islam had made the healing process easier. Taking note of this, in addition to other observations I had made during field visits, I was able to understand how religion plays a major role in the lives of the Rohingya people, and how they adopt practices in accordance with their interpretation of it. The example discussed in this personal reflection is that of Husna’s father, who maintained that although he knew it would be Islamically encouraged to engage in legal action against his daughter’s perpetrator (which would also promote his daughter’s safety and peace of mind), he feared that if word regarding her abuse became known to his community, his daughter’s future chances of receiving marriage proposals from potential suitors would be hampered. As per Rohingya culture, male members are responsible for making major decisions on behalf of their families. Husna’s father admitted that despite being a devout Muslim, he had certain reservations when it came to his family’s pride and social standing. Ultimately, I learned that the father was uncomfortable with following through with the legal process due to fears that Husna would not be desired as a spouse in the future. This exemplified that although religion does play an important role in the lives of the Rohingya people, cultural factors can cause social constructs to take precedence over religious beliefs.

How to cite this article:
Shah AA. How social constructs take precedence over religious beliefs in Rohingya refugees.Intervention 2019;17:316-318

How to cite this URL:
Shah AA. How social constructs take precedence over religious beliefs in Rohingya refugees. Intervention [serial online] 2019 [cited 2023 Jun 8 ];17:316-318
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Full Text


I worked as an intern for UNHCR Bangladesh’s Public Health Unit from January to April 2019 as a new medical school graduate with an interest in mental health. The public health unit encompasses mental health, and mental health activities within UNHCR’s refugee camps often overlap with legal, protection-based activities. In an effort to get a better understanding of mental health within the context of the Rohingya refugee community, I visited a counselling centre of UNHCR’s Protection Unit in the Kutupalong refugee camp. It was made clear to me that psychosocial counsellors were especially crucial in the legal process because they often bore the responsibility of supporting victims of abuse cases to take legal action. As an intern, I expressed interest in understanding the mental health impacts of protection-related cases on the refugee community. I spent the first half of the day taking note of how legal cases were managed by the humanitarian community.

I was then able to engage directly in the management and counselling process. I asked the counsellor I was shadowing about her understanding and viewpoint of mental health within the Rohingya refugee community. She explained that mental health barriers were manifold, from there not being adequate terms within the Rohingya language to describe mental health conditions, to stigmas associated with taking medications for psychiatric conditions, to hyperawareness regarding the opinions of others in society. I came to understand more about these issues through one particular case, through which I learned not only about the mental health impact of physical abuse on a young refugee girl, but also the social constructs that existed within her family and the ways in which culture can influence the effectiveness of MHPSS programming.

 Husna’s Story1

The counsellor introduced me to a 16-year-old girl, Husna (not her real name), who was visiting the centre for a regular counselling session. I expressed to the counsellor that I was unsure as to how comfortable Husna would be in speaking to me about what had happened. The counsellor then explained that all humanitarian workers within the camps had the responsibility of assuring refugees that they were present as professional sources of help, comfort and treatment. She explained how she had established a good understanding between herself and Husna, so that Husna would not feel reserved in sharing things that, perhaps, would cause her to be ‘judged’ if a member of her community were to hear. The counsellor introduced me to Husna as a fellow humanitarian worker, and Husna looked more visibly at ease. Being fluent in Bengali but not the Rohingya language, I sought help in conversing with Husna through the counsellor.

Husna explained that she was initially brought to the counselling centre by her sister who was concerned with Husna’s recent change of behaviour from calm and amicable to disturbed and distressed. It was only at the counselling centre that Husna was able to feel calm, and upon questioning she shared that she had been sexually abused by an elder male refugee who resided in the house next to hers in the Kutupalong refugee camp. Although Husna had been abused by the same perpetrator on multiple occasions, she did not reveal it to any of her family members because she feared for her family’s safety. The perpetrator had threatened abuse against her family members if she told them what had happened.

She was referred to a primary health centre (PHC), where she tested positive as being two months pregnant. Husna explained that she began regularly receiving medical treatment at the PHC and counselling at the counselling centre. I noted how her face lit up when she spoke of receiving treatment within the camp; she was pleased with the care and attention she received. She attributed the progress that she had made to her doctors and counsellors. She also reiterated the importance of her religion in her life and that of her family’s. She said that she applied what she learned from the Quran into her daily life when it came to her way of dressing and interactions with others.

A hurdle lay in convincing Husna’s family to seek legal action against the perpetrator. The counsellor believed that if Husna witnessed the perpetrator experiencing consequences from his actions, it would give her a sense of closure and also make her feel safe in continuing to live where she does. The counsellors aimed to convince Husna’s father to opt for legal action because, as she explained, it is a standard part of Rohingya culture for major decisions to be made by male head members of each family. When I asked Husna what she wanted to do, she said she was in favour of taking legal action, but that the ultimate decision lay in the hands of her father. She stated that she would be okay with whatever her father decided upon.

Husna’s father later arrived to check on his daughter’s progress at the counselling centre. The counsellor introduced me to him as a humanitarian worker and assured him of confidentiality. I spoke to the father about what Husna had shared with me and how she had expressed satisfaction with the care she received in the hands of humanitarian organisations. Her father, too, accredited Husna’s progress to the work of her counsellors and doctors and stated he was happy to see his daughter as she had been before the abuse. I then mentioned to the father that he could take legal action against the perpetrator if he wanted, stating that it could help Husna feel even better and at ease. Husna’s father physically tensed up at the mention of this, replying that although he would want the abuser to face consequences, and knew that taking legal action would be Islamically encouraged, he feared that Husna’s case of sexual abuse would thereby become publicly known within the refugee community.

He stated that the news of this fact would be a stain on her honour and her family’s standing within the refugee community and that it would not be an easy thing to erase from others’ minds. Although Husna’s father was not focused on getting Husna married immediately, he feared that in the future, members of his community would not approach his daughter for marriage proposals. He thus feared that she would forever become socially ostracised and would never move forward in her life. The counsellor asked: ‘Wouldn’t you want to look for a suitor who would overlook this occurrence and choose to marry your daughter simply for who she is?’ The father gently stated that he loved his daughter and wanted the best for her. He also stated that as a man of the faith of Islam, he believed it to be correct for legal action to be taken for the sake of his daughter and in order to bring justice to the abuser. Finally, however, he stated: ‘While I am a religious person and we do our best to follow Islam in a correct way, I am finding it hard to let go of this fear that I have for my daughter’s future. I don’t want her to suffer because of this.’

Husna’s father listened to what the counsellor and I had to say. I then asked him if he would consider changing his mind in order to appease his daughter. He replied that he would need time to think over it, and added: ‘If I had a son, I would not want him to marry a girl who has been sexually abused.’


Throughout my time as a UNHCR intern, I came to understand how religion plays a major role within the lifestyle of Rohingya individuals living in the refugee camps. From their style of dress, to the abundance of mosques within their communities, to their own statements about how Islam is central to their way of life, my personal understanding was that no Rohingya refugee would allow any aspect of Rohingya culture to take precedence over religion.

Referring to the Quran, I found that Quranic text categorically instructs followers to handle crimes in a manner that brings justice to both the perpetrator and the abused. However, as I reflect on this interview with Husna and her father, religious guidance in Husna’s case seems to be overpowered by cultural expectations in relation to the social construct of marriage within the Rohingya community and beliefs about how a woman, though not responsible for an act of abuse, carries the shame of it. Witnessing this unique exception in behaviour among the Rohingya community, it intrigued me that cultural factors had such a huge bearing over religious beliefs. While other aspects of religion, such as daily prayers and modesty, were adhered to, I wondered as to why an exception was made in this situation.

 Suggestions from a Humanitarian Perspective

One of the major things I observed about the Rohingya refugee community during my internship was that in order for any sort of change in traditional behaviours to take place, things had to be initiated from within. Change is unlikely to occur as a result of suggestions from humanitarian workers because those suggestions are coming from individuals outside of the Rohingya community, who cannot relate to the background and condition of the Rohingya people. If there were people from within the Rohingya community who were advocating for or actually took legal action in cases of sexual abuse, a person such as Husna’s father may have a much easier time agreeing to take legal action himself.

In this unique example of cultural tendencies taking precedence over standard religious values among Rohingya refugees, it is evident that change cannot be imposed from an outside force. Change would require action from within the community itself. In the event that a victim of abuse in the Rohingya community would perhaps choose to follow through with legal action, it still seems that a considerable amount of time would have to pass in order for others in the Rohingya community to follow suit (as one may need assurance that such a choice did not result in social ostracisation of the party involved). In essence, I think that change in this regard is possible, but is conditional and would only be generated in the long term.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

1The name has been changed.