Rohingya children, some of them under 10 years old, are receiving treatment for rape in camps on the Bangladesh border, according to medics who say that young refugees account for half of those sexually assaulted while fleeing violence in Myanmar.
Médecins Sans Frontières says dozens of Rohingya girls have been given medical and psychological support at its Kutupalong health facility’s sexual and reproductive health unit – a specialist clinic for survivors of sexual assault based in the largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.
Of those fleeing Rakhine state who come to the clinic for treatment relating to rape, “about 50% are aged 18 or under, including one girl who was nine years old and several others under the age of 10”, an MSF spokesperson said.
The organisation stressed this was just a fraction of those believed to have been sexually assaulted and raped since military operations began on 25 August, as most survivors faced practical and cultural barriers to accessing treatment.
“Women and girls often don’t seek medical care for sexual violence due to the stigma, shame and fear of being blamed for what’s happened to them,” said Aerlyn Pfeil, an MSF midwife focusing on support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in Cox’s Bazar.
In the last week a nine-year-old girl was among the new arrivals who received medical treatment after being raped, as military violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine continues.
Rohingya refugees have repeatedly described incidents of gang rape and sexual assaults by the Myanmar army during military operations the UN has said amount to ethnic cleansing, but this is the first timeevidence of a large number of children being targeted has emerged.
According to another SGBV medical specialist working in the camps, who asked not to be named because of patient privacy, most cases she has dealt with involve the army gathering all the women and girls in a village in one place and picking “the most beautiful” to be taken away and raped, either by individual soldiers or groups.
“A lot of them are just 12 or 13 years old,” she said.
One recent case she dealt with involved a child under 10 with severe bleeding who had been raped by three soldiers, she said.
Her account backs the stories of numerous refugees who describe similar incidents of mass rape, with many saying some victims were subsequently killed.
After speaking to psychological experts in the camps who warned such interviews could increase trauma for victims, the Guardian did not seek to speak directly to child rape survivors.
However, during an interview with a 27-year-old woman from the Buthidaung area of Rakhine, who said her husband and father were rounded up and killed by the Myanmar military shortly after 25 August, it emerged the woman’s 14-year-old sister had been raped during the attack.
“The military put all the male people to one side and took all the female people into the jungle,” she said, adding that the soldiers then selected some girls and women.
“I cried when they took away my little sister, but I couldn’t stop them.
“They tortured and raped many girls and women. When they stopped and left I went looking for my sister and saw many bodies on the ground. When I found my sister I didn’t know if she was alive or dead, but she was breathing.
“She was bleeding a lot so I carried her to a little river and washed her. Then I took her on my shoulders till I found a small medical clinic [in Rakhine] and got some medicine for her.”
The woman said her sister had later told her she had been raped by two soldiers and by one of the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist civilians who had been involved in the attack on their village.
“What I’m finding is that many of the survivors I’ve met are recent arrivals from Myanmar and have not previously been aware that there are specific medical services, or any medical services at all, available to them,” said Pfeil.
“When I’ve been speaking to survivors of sexual violence, one of the more heartbreaking and common requests I’ve had is for new cloth skirts, because [weeks] later, they’re still wearing the same clothes they were raped or assaulted in.”
More than 600,000 people have fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh since 25 August and are now struggling to survive in terrible conditions in sprawling makeshift camps.
Human Rights Watch said last week: “The Burmese military has clearly used rape as one of a range of horrific methods of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.”