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Silent agony

Scores of underage Rohingya girls are forced into abusive marriages in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA (AP) – In a bedroom in Malaysia that has become a prison, the 14-year-old girl wipes away tears as she sits cross-legged on the concrete floor. It is here, she says, where her 35-year-old husband rapes her nearly every night.

Last year, the Rohingya girl sacrificed herself to save her family, embarking on a terrifying journey from her homeland of Myanmar to a country she had never seen, to marry a man she had never met.

Rohingya child bride, B, age 14, sits on a bed in an apartment in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on October 4. B came to Malaysia in 2023 to marry an older man. Her husband wants her to get pregnant, but she says she doesn’t feel ready. “I still feel like a girl.” PHOTO: AP/VICTORIA MILKO 

It wasn’t her choice. But her family, she says, was impoverished, hungry and terrified of Myanmar’s military, which attacked the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority in 2017.

In desperation, a neighbour found a man in Malaysia who would pay the MYR18,000 fee for the girl’s passage and — after she married him — send money to her family for food.

And so, the teenager — identified along with all the girls in this story by her first initial to protect her from retaliation — hugged her parents goodbye. Then M climbed into a trafficker’s car packed with children.

Deteriorating conditions in Myanmar and in neighbouring Bangladesh’s refugee camps are driving scores of underage Rohingya girls to Malaysia for arranged marriages with Rohingya men who frequently abuse them, The Associated Press found in interviews with 12 young Rohingya brides who have arrived in Malaysia since 2022. The youngest was 13.

All the girls interviewed by the AP said their controlling husbands rarely let them outside. Several said they were beaten and raped during the journey to Malaysia, and five said they were abused by their husbands. Half the girls are pregnant or have babies, despite most saying they were not prepared for motherhood.

“This was my only way out,” says 16-year-old F, who in 2017 watched as Myanmar’s soldiers burned her house and killed her aunt. “I wasn’t ready to be married, but I didn’t have a choice.”

Rohingya child bride, F, age 16, walks down the hallway of an apartment complex in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on October 5. The complex houses several underage Rohingya girls who are married to older men. F came to Malaysia from Myanmar amid escalating violence from the military in her village. She married her husband the same day they met. “I wasn’t ready to be married, but I didn’t have a choice,” she said. PHOTO: AP/VICTORIA MILKO

These unwanted marriages are the latest atrocity bestowed upon Rohingya girls: from childhoods marred by violence to attacks where security forces systematically raped them to years of hunger in Bangladesh’s squalid refugee camps.

Global apathy toward the Rohingya crisis and strict migration policies have left these girls with almost no options.

The military that attacked the Rohingya overthrew Myanmar’s government in 2021, making any return home a life-threatening proposition.

Bangladesh has refused to grant citizenship or working rights to the million stateless Rohingya languishing in its camps. And no country is offering large-scale resettlement opportunities.

And so the Rohingya are increasingly fleeing — and those who are fleeing are increasingly female. During the 2015 Andaman Sea boat crisis, in which thousands of Rohingya refugees were stranded at sea, the vast majority of passengers were men.

A barbed wire fence surrounds an apartment building in a Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, neighbourhood where Rohingya child brides live, on October 9. PHOTO: AP/VICTORIA MILKO 

This year, more than 60 per cent of the Rohingya who have survived the Andaman crossing have been women and children, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.

In Bangladesh, Save the Children says child marriage is one of the agency’s most reported worries among camp residents.

“We are seeing a rise in cases of child trafficking,” says Shaheen Chughtai, Save the Children’s Regional Advocacy and Campaigns Director for Asia. “Girls are more vulnerable to this, and often this is linked to being married off in different territories.”

Accurate statistics on how many Rohingya child brides live in Malaysia don’t exist. But local advocates who work with the girls say they have seen a spike in arrivals over the past two years.

“There are really a lot of Rohingyas coming in to get married,” says Nasha Nik, executive director of the Rohingya Women Development Network, which has worked with hundreds of child brides in recent years.

Rohingya child bride, R, age 16, holds her newborn baby while standing in an apartment in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on October 4. R left Bangladesh’s refugee camps for Malaysia in 2022 to marry her 27-year-old husband as conditions in the camps deteriorated. R says she wasn’t ready to have a baby, but felt lonely and is now glad to have the company. PHOTO: AP/VICTORIA MILKO

Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations’ refugee convention, so the girls — most of whom are undocumented — are considered illegal immigrants. Reporting their assaults to authorities would put them at risk of being thrown into one of Malaysia’s detention centres, which have long been plagued by reports of abuse.

Malaysia’s government did not respond to the AP’s requests for comment.

M didn’t even know her future husband’s name when she climbed into the trafficker’s car alongside several other girls headed to Malaysia for marriage.

For a week, they traveled through Myanmar and Thailand. After crossing into Malaysia, they stopped at a house. Four of the trafficker’s friends arrived and each selected a girl.

The man who chose M — who looked to be around 50 — drove her to another house. When they got inside, she says, he raped her.

In the morning, he locked her in the bedroom and left her there all day with no water or food. The next night, he returned and raped her again. She was terrified he would kill her.

M was then handed over to another man who drove her to her fiancé’s apartment.

Rohingya child bride, D, age 13, stands next to a window in the hallway of an apartment complex in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on October 5. D came to Malaysia from Bangladesh in 2023 for an arranged marriage with an older man. During the journey, she says she was forced to eat jungle plants to survive and watched helplessly as a trafficker raped at least six other girls. Now in Malaysia, she says her husband forces her to have sex with him. PHOTO: AP/VICTORIA MILKO

She didn’t dare tell her fiancé she’d been raped, because then he would reject her.

Her fiancé insisted they get married that day. In agony and bleeding from the rapes, M told her husband she had her period, so he wouldn’t touch her.

A Rohingya women’s advocate, who confirmed M’s account to the AP, heard about the situation and brought M to the hospital for treatment.

When M returned to her husband, she learned he was already married with two children. She had no power to object to the situation, or to the beatings, cruel taunts and rapes she regularly endures. She said nothing about the abuse to her parents, lest her husband stop sending them MYR300 a month.

She sits now in her bedroom, her thin frame cloaked in teddy bear pajamas. Dangling from the ceiling is a rope designed to hold a hammock for any babies her husband forces her to bear.

She once dreamed of going to school and becoming a teacher or a doctor. But she has stopped thinking of her future. For now, she just tries to survive her present.

“I want to go back home, but I can’t,” she says. “I feel trapped.”

Rohingya child bride, T, age 16, holds her son in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on October 5. T left Bangladesh for Malaysia in 2022 for an arranged marriage with an older man. During her journey from Bangladesh, she was abused by a trafficker. She says her husband verbally abuses her and doesn’t let her leave their apartment. PHOTO: AP/VICTORIA MILKO