THET KE PYIN, Burma — When I first met Roma Hattu, a stateless Rohingya Muslim, in April 2013, she was rolling on the dirty concrete floor of an abandoned building in western Burma, heavily pregnant and in excruciating pain.
She had taken shelter in the building after Buddhist-Muslim riots in June 2012 had forced her family, like tens of thousands of other Rohingya, to leave their homes in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, and move to squalid displacement camps.
A month ago, when I returned to Sittwe, I tracked down Hattu, now 31, to see how she was faring two years after the riots.
I found her in a dark, dingy room at the end of a long dormitory, eight months pregnant—her fourth pregnancy—and once again in pain.
“My heart beats too fast and I feel dizzy. I can’t sleep and I can’t eat,” she said, as her year-old son, whose birth we had assisted by sending the cash-strapped mother to hospital in our car, slept soundly next to her on the bamboo floor.
Money is a big worry for Hattu’s family. Her husband, Kalia, is a traditional masseur. Before the riots, he used to earn around $10 a day. Now he’s lucky to bring home $1 to $2. They lost their home and belongings during the riots and his job soon afterward, when Muslims were barred from Sittwe.
“I told my husband I don’t want more kids but he wouldn’t listen,” she said.
My translator, a young Rohingya man, stopped translating. After repeated urging, he haltingly repeated what Hattu had said—her husband insists on sleeping with her and she could not say no, especially as she was the second wife.
Hattu is uneducated and, like many other Rohingya women, does not understand the concept of family planning.
The combination of poverty, pregnancy and pain that many Rohingya women endure is due to a potent combination of hostility from Buddhist Arakanese, the extreme conservatism of the Rohingya themselves and the low level of female education—the result partly of state policies and partly tradition.
I’ve interviewed dozens of Rohingya women over the years, many of them struggling to look after large families or cope with pregnancy. Some had been abandoned by their husbands, either for a second wife from the same village or when they moved abroad to find work, as many Rohingya men do.
Large Muslim Families
Nationalists among Burma’s majority Buddhists often point to the large families of Muslims, especially the Rohingya, to justify the religious violence that has claimed at least 240 lives and uprooted over 150,000 people, mainly Muslims, since June 2012.
They say the large families are part of a Muslim drive to take over Burma—though Muslims make up only an estimated 4 percent of the 60 million population.
Perversely, the aid agencies that could have promoted family planning, like Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland (MSF), have been expelled from Arakan State after being accused of favoritism toward the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Burma despite living there for generations.
Rights groups say the Rohingya face a litany of persecution and discrimination, from forced labor and land grabs to restrictions on movement and marriage. Rohingya women, many of whom are uneducated, stay-at-home wives and daughters, often find themselves at the bottom of the social ladder.
Laila, for example, was 14 when she got married and 15 when she had her first baby. Six months ago, when she was pregnant with their third child, her husband fled Burma with his second wife, aged 18. Laila lost the baby.
Now 20, Laila is the sole breadwinner in the family, which includes her husband’s younger brother. She has resorted to selling half her rations from the World Food Programme to buy fish and firewood.
Then there’s Sinuwara Begum, who was about to deliver when her husband left their tarpaulin tent at dusk, ostensibly to board a fishing boat that would take him to Malaysia. He left her not a cent. She gave birth to twin boys days later.
When we met, her babies were nine days old and she had still heard nothing from her husband. “Maybe he is still on the boat and has not arrived,” she said, hope in her voice.