Saturday, March 19, 2011

International Women’s Day: A Stateless Woman’s Story

On International Women’s Day we celebrate women’s achievements and we push for further progress towards real equality. But a large group of women around the world are being shut out of enjoying any progress – women who have no citizenship of any country. Their statelessness means that no government protects their rights.

In Malaysia last week I met with Gultaz, who was 9 months pregnant and very scared. Her story illustrates the type of problems that many stateless women around the world face, forced to hide themselves away and unable to advance in their lives.

Gultaz is a Rohingya – a Muslim ethnic minority group from western Burma – and she is both stateless and a refugee. The Rohingya have no rights in Burma and their lives are made impossible by such practices as forced labor, displacement and systematic physical assault and rape. They are not allowed to marry or travel to other villages unless they pay prohibitively high taxes. The Burmese authorities stripped the Rohingya of their Burmese citizenship in 1982, arguing that they are Bangladeshi. But the Bangladeshi government also does not accept the Rohingya as their citizens. So the Rohingya community is stateless, with no government that accepts them.

Gultaz, her family and neighbors were displaced from their village near the archaeological ruins or Mrauk-U in Arakan State. The military wanted to develop the site for tourism and forcibly relocated them with no compensation. The Burmese authorities used brutal force to require Gultaz’s husband to work for them for no pay. They beat him in the face, and he has had two eye operations to try to repair the damage he suffered. He fled without being able to inform Gultaz of where he was going, so she was left alone struggling to look after their young son and suffering persecution from the Burmese authorities.

Eventually, Gultaz learned that her husband had made his way to Malaysia. She could no longer ensure the survival of her son in Burma and she decided that she had no option but to travel illegally, with her 12 year-old son, to Bangladesh, where they took a boat to Thailand. Then they made their way to the border between Thailand and Malaysia. Gultaz and her son were arrested there for illegal entry into Thailand, and they were held in a Thai detention center for more than three months. The conditions in the detention center were appalling for her and her child. When they got out of the detention center they managed to cross the border into Malaysia and she and her son were reunited with her husband.

Gultaz was relieved to get to Malaysia, where the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is permitted to assist the Rohingya. UNHCR registered her and her son as refugees in Malaysia, because they had a well-founded fear of persecution in Burma, and they were given official UN refugee cards. But, despite allowing UNHCR to register refugees there, Malaysia has not signed the international convention on refugees, and it still arrests foreigners who enter the country illegally, even if they are refugees or stateless.

Three years after arriving in Malaysia, when Gultaz was five months pregnant with her second child, she and her husband were both arrested by immigration authorities and were held in detention. Gultaz said that it was terrible being pregnant in the Malaysian detention center, with inadequate food and unclean water, and she had difficulty getting medical attention. After two months, UNHCR secured the release of Gultaz from the detention center. Over the past two years Malaysia has reduced arrests of refugees registered with UNHCR, but Gultaz’s experiences make her too scared to go out.

Gultaz struggles to survive economically, as her husband is still ill, but her fear of going out prevents her from taking up possible opportunities. She was offered a loan under a micro-credit scheme, but she refused as she was worried she would not be able to repay it. She pointed out that since she does not have the right to work in Malaysia she fears she could be arrested again while trying to sell any products she would make. And she does not want to default on a loan.

When I asked Gultaz what she hoped for the future, she told me that her life was over (although she is only 37) and all she thinks of is her children’s future. Her older child never went to school. She hopes that her 3 year-old daughter will be allowed to go to government schools so that she will have a future.

On International Women’s Day we must not forget that there are millions of stateless women around the world like Gultaz, and we should push governments to recognize their rights.