Working with women in Rohingya refugee camps to make toilets safer

In the world’s largest camp, Rohingya refugees are now living in sprawling and cramped conditions in makeshift shelters made from bamboo and plastic tarpaulin. The monsoon rains have turned the camps into mud, dangerously worsening the already dire conditions; and now the potentially devastating winds and rains of cyclone season loom.

Finding suitable space to build toilets and washing facilities has proved extremely challenging. More than a third of women surveyed by Oxfam said they did not feel safe or comfortable going to collect water or using toilets and shower cubicles –many of which lack a roof and a lockable door.

Women are going hungry and thirsty to avoid needing the toilet as frequently, suffering abdominal pain and infections by not relieving themselves and resorting to defecation by their tents, which increases the risk of a major outbreak of disease – especially in the monsoon. Poor facilities are increasing the risk of sexual abuse and harassment. Hundreds of incidents of gender-based violence are reported each week.

Ayesha lives with her daughters in her shelter in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh: “We don’t like to go out a night either, because it is not safe for women. At the moment, there are no lights near my tent, so it is hard to see where you are walking even if you have a torch. At night, we don’t eat or drink very much so that we don’t have to use the toilet."

Women and girls are paying the price in terms of their wellbeing and safety

In order to help tackle these issues, Oxfam is looking for an innovative approach by bringing in with two young architects, Imogen McAndrew and Freya Emerson, who have been working directly with Rohingya refugee women and girls in the design of new, more accessible facilities. Spending a week in focus groups and workshops with refugees, Imogen and Freya worked with the women to make models and sketches of their ideas.

Imogen hopes to make a long terms difference to the lives of the women: “Each camp we visited was very different. One group of women were concerned with their latrines, another with the laundry facilities. Asking the right questions was challenging too. It was humbling how dignified all the women were despite having undergone terrible trauma and living in extremely difficult circumstances.”

Freya explained that the preliminary designs use screens to make latrine entrances more private, rather than the doors opening directly into the camps as they do at the moment: “Women told us it’s important for them not to feel stared at when entering or leaving the toilets. We want to make the routes into the toilets and washing facilities less obvious and more private, so that women feel more comfortable to use these facilities.”

The two young architects also helped design places where women could keep their menstruation products and encouraged the construction of more single sex toilet facilities.

It is important that Oxfam works effectively with local organisations and refugees to tailor its humanitarian response to more effectively support women and girls. We are one of the leading aid agencies working on water and sanitation. We’ve worked hard to provide people with clean water and sanitation facilities, but we need to make sure what we do truly meets the refugees’ needs. This project was a new idea for us to bring an architect’s perspective to howwe design facilities and to help us with new ideas that work for Rohingya women that work in the very difficult environment of these camps.

Following further consultations with Rohingya women and girls, Oxfam plans to pilot some of the architects’ designs in September this year.


This entry was posted on 24 August 2018 by Michelle Farrington, Oxfam’s Public Health Promotion Coordinator in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

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