By Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario
Church officials and human rights campaigners have expressed cautious views on the Bangladeshi government’s plan to promote a voluntary sterilization program targeting Rohingya refugees in an effort to curb a surging population.
Bangladesh is planning to introduce voluntary sterilization to the nearly one million Rohingya refugees currently living in Bangladesh who fled persecution in Rakhine State of Myanmar, Al Jazeera reported Oct. 29.
Government officials have said the sterilization plan is “free and voluntary” and is addressing a need as there is little birth control awareness among the Rohingya.
“In Myanmar, they have been completely in the dark over birth control as they didn’t have access to basic facilities like education and health,” Pintu Kanti Bhattacherjee, chief family planning officer at Cox’s Bazar district, told ucanews.com.
“We will talk to them and encourage them to be sterilized,” he said, stressing participation would be voluntary.
Bhattacharjee said the government has so far distributed birth control methods including condoms and pills to up to 6,000 families.
“This is an ongoing process and it is being carried out once in every three months,” he said.
Bishop Shorot Francis Gomes, auxiliary bishop of Dhaka Archdiocese, said that the Rohingya population seems large due to Bangladesh’s small land area and their mass concentration in the district of Cox’s Bazar.
“In our country, population seems like a burden as we couldn’t turn most of them into ‘asset’ by providing education and training, so we cannot reap the demographic dividends,” said Bishop Gomes.
“The Church supports natural family planning, not artificial birth control. The government will do its work, but our concern is if you don’t make people aware about it, educate them on natural ways and they would continue to remain in darkness,” he said.
“Like Bangladeshi people if we can properly educate people and make them skilled, they would then decide what is the best way to keep the family small,” said the bishop.
Nur Khan, a prominent human right campaigner, said the government needs be cautious with their plan.
“It is true that Rohingya have had no idea of family planning,” Khan told ucanews.com. “The government should not impose it on them but should make them aware about it first and then proceed with it if they are positive. Their decision must be respected.”
More than 600,000 Rohingya have poured into Bangladesh since Aug. 25 after the Myanmar military responded to Rohingya militant attacks on security checkpoints with a harsh crackdown labeled ethnic cleansing by the U.N. The new arrivals were an addition to more than 300,000 Rohingya already living in Bangladesh who fled previous bouts of persecution in Myanmar.
Untold numbers of Rohingya in Rakhine State have been killed and women raped by the military and local Buddhist mobs.
Rohingya refugees mostly live in squalid camps in Cox’s Bazar with little access to basic supplies and services.
Most refugee families are large, ranging from 5-20 members on average.
Lalu Bibi, 55, is a mother of 10, who fled to Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar from Maungdaw, Rakhine State a month ago. Her three sons and one daughter have 21 children.
“We never heard of birth control back home, and I didn’t want to take children after we had five, but my husband insisted,” Bibi told ucanews.com.
“I think a large family is a burden and I will encourage my daughters and daughter-in-laws to use birth control methods,” she said.
Muhammad Taher, 32, a father of four now living at Tambru refugee camp in Bandarban district said he wouldn’t take up birth control.
“Back home we had no knowledge about artificial birth control, and we believe children are gifts from Allah,” Taher told ucanews.com.
“But I don’t want to take up birth control because more children mean more power. If we are repatriated to Burma, my children will help to work in my crop fields,” Taher said.
Local media in Bangladesh have reported that 20,000 Rohingya women are pregnant and 600 babies have been born since the influx started late August.
The number of pregnancy is high as many young Rohingya women who think that by getting pregnant they reduce the risk being raped by the Myanmar military and local mobs.