Can light tackle gender-based violence?

      By Prajna Khanna, Director Signify Foundation

    Sitting on the floor of the women’s protection center at the Rohingya refugee camp, surrounded by a group of regulars, and I am struck by two things; one, these are adolescent and pre-adolescent little girls – not yet women; and two, all the girls have make up on – red lipstick, powdery pink eyeshadow, glitter on their cheeks, shiny clips in their hair.

    All of 13 years old, Mabi, recounts her journey that brought her to the camp 3 months ago. “They came and burnt my village, they had guns. So, we ran with nothing but the clothes on our back…my mother and 8 of us children. We walked a month in the hills, barefoot, and reliant on the mercy of the villagers we passed. Sometimes we were fed, sometimes not. When we reached the water, we had no money for the boats, so we swam. All of us, we swam together. Following a boat, sometimes the water would be shallow, so we could stand till our necks and get some rest – then we swam again – for 3 hours to cross the water and come to Bangladesh.”


    This child in front of me with pink eye-shadow and red lipstick, with a ready smile – she was one of the lucky ones who made it alive. Lucky? What was a population of 500,000 people, in a sleepy beach resort town called Cox’s Bazaar, is where the Rohingya’s fled to. Official figures state that 750,000 of them arrived, more than doubling the local population in 3 months. The makeshift camps provided for food, emergency aid, and shelter. But when night comes, it is pitch dark. Then the rapes happen. The girls have UTI’s (Urinary Track Infections) from holding in themselves all night, as going to the public toilets at night is asking for trouble. Last week, a 17-year-old from this group was raped when coming back from collecting firewood. But it’s not just the little girls at risk, also the little boys are at heightened risk.


    Child-headed household’, it’s the first time I hear this term. Asida, 13 years old, is the head of the family of 4 children. Her mother died a few years ago and her father was killed on their journey across the mountains and water. Her home is dark, as the houses are packed tightly next to one another with no natural light. “We sleep early” she says, “and I never leave my alley – the children get the firewood and get the food from the aid agencies.” The BRAC team, our partners on the ground, explain to me, she is too pretty. Asida cannot take any risks, without her, the other children would not survive.


    Ironically, the most probable future for these girls is marriage at a young age. Iffat, who has been helping us from BRAC, explains the makeup – they want to look pretty for the men.


    Signify’s Life Light mini, a small solar wonder, brings smiles to the faces of the girls. When Maanav and Padmanava demonstrate the solar home system, the men start gathering. Energy from the sun, no battery costs and light for their homes, for the protection centers, for the schools. So even when night falls, the sun keeps lighting their lives.

    Registered charity in the Netherlands (ANBI), RSIN number 857684553.

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