How the Trudeau government is failing the world's most vulnerable despite its 'feminist' aid policy

This column is an opinion by Sakshi Shetty and Kassandra Neranjan. Shetty is a University of Toronto alumni, and a researcher on gender and global health who is working with social enterprises in Toronto. Neranjan is a BCL/JD candidate at the McGill Faculty of Law and a gender justice thought leader, conducting research and advocating on issues surrounding the rights of women and girls. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On International Women’s Day, it’s critical to reflect upon the Canadian government’s failure to properly support some of the most marginalized people in our global society: stateless Rohingya women.

Since its launch in 2017, the Trudeau government has promoted its “Feminist International Assistance Policy,” aimed at supporting the economic, political, and social empowerment of women and girls. Yet despite providing aid funding, the government has displayed woefully inadequate action in the context of the Rohingya genocide and refugee crisis.

It has been two and a half years since 800,000 Rohingya fled genocide in Rakhine, Myanmar, at the hands of the state military. Today, tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya people remain stateless, traumatized, and rely on humanitarian aid to live in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Many are barred from obtaining employment, and have limited mobility or educational opportunities within the camps.

And the Rohingya crisis is a gendered crisis – 60 per cent of the refugees are women and children. Human Rights Watch reports that rape was used as a systematic weapon of war against women by the Myanmar military to incite terror and drive Rohingya families into exile while their villages were destroyed.

Rohingya women and girls now face a new set of insecurities related to their safety and future in the Bangladesh refugee camps. Adolescent girls who do not have the opportunity to attend school or work are at risk of being forced into early child marriage or victimized by human trafficking. Facing severe security risks in the camps, women often stay in their small huts and engage in care work.

In researching the conditions Rohingya women and girls face in the refugee camps and how aid is being provided, we found that many individuals in the non-governmental organization (NGO) community view gender-based considerations to be non-essential. Some aid officials believe that factoring in notions of gender when implementing programs detracts from providing life-saving assistance for the overarching population.

Consequently, many current humanitarian aid projects fail to address the underlying physical and mental trauma that Rohingya women have faced due to military persecution and additional traumatization in refugee camps.

Young people sell goods on a bridge in a Rohingya refugee camp on Jan. 23 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

The stark reality is that as a result of their age, gender, statelessness, and religion, Rohingya women and girls have faced extreme trauma and violence. Thus, when being supported by the international development community, it is crucial that considerations of gender are mainstreamed across all aid interventions. For instance, health care services are often extremely limited, and fail to address the systemic concerns of dehumanization, sexual violence, family planning and more. Rohingya women also resort to negative coping mechanisms and are drawn into exploitative labour practices when they lack proper education and employment opportunities in the camps.

One may argue that in a crisis situation there is a requirement to provide life-saving aid first. However, whether providing food, education or health care, catering to gender and providing life-saving aid must not be seen as incompatible.

Of particular concern, we believe, is the fact that some humanitarian organizations draft proposals that appear to be gender-sensitive, but in the long run, these gendered considerations are not implemented.

Lack of proper planning and oversight is at the root of the problem. Canada is the fifth-largest single country donor to the Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis in Bangladesh. Yet despite its “feminist” international assistance policy, Canada is failing to ensure that the millions it is investing in humanitarian aid effectively addresses the basic needs of women and girls.

Women wait for treatment outside a hospital in a Rohingya refugee camp on Jan. 23 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Fundamentally missing is Canada’s role in creating accountability mechanisms that ensure women and girls are centred in all the humanitarian assistance projects it collaborates in and funds. Without this oversight, these projects risk being unsustainable and inaccessible to Rohingya women who desperately need them.

And while Canada purports to champion a feminist strategy, it has also done little so far politically to support Rohingya women and girls.

In recent weeks, smaller states like Gambia and Maldives have filed accusations of genocide against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Although Canada has recognized the atrocities in Myanmar as constitutive of genocide, it has not engaged with any fervour to spearhead such accusations in the international sphere.

Gambia’s case allowed for provisional measures, taken last month, to prevent the genocide of the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar. The actions of the Maldivian and Gambian governments, and the ICJ’s approval of the probe, may allow the implementation of the UN Genocide Convention, which would catalyze criminal proceedings against Myanmar.

The International Court of Justice has ordered Myanmar to protect its Muslim Rohingya population from persecution and atrocities. 1:14

However, Myanmar’s compliance has now become a topic of concern. While the court has no enforcement power, any member of the United Nations, and thus Canada, can request action from the Security Council based on its rulings. Keeping in mind that Justin Trudeau recently toured Africa seeking UN votes for Canada to take a position on the Security Council, it would be interesting to see this same zeal applied to exploring how the Rohingya can be protected by the international community.

Canada, a founding author of The Responsibility to Protect, could defend the Rohingya from the risk of genocide by using this same doctrine, for example. It allows states to intervene in other countries to protect populations at risk of genocide.

Similarly, Canada could employ principles of non-refoulment entrenched in international law, which prevents states from displacing specific populations to regions where their safety is at risk — a real fear of many Rohingya women.

It is imperative that the concerns of Rohingya women and girls, and the daily realities they face, are acknowledged and used to shape the principles of forthcoming Canadian aid and foreign policy. Without these considerations and political action, Canada continues to be complicit in the ongoing repression of the Rohingya people.

The Trudeau government’s feminist policy will remain empty words until the mechanisms for humanitarian accountability and its international policies effectively empower the women and girls they claim to support.

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