A 14-year-old Rohingya girl sits on the concrete floor of her bedroom, where she says her 35-year-old husband rapes her nearly every night. She is one of the scores of underage Rohingya girls who have been forced into abusive marriages with older men in Malaysia, after fleeing violence and starvation in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The girl, identified by her first initial M, sacrificed herself to save her family last year, when a neighbor found a man in Malaysia who would pay for her passage and send money to her parents and siblings. She did not know that she would become a prisoner in a foreign country, with no way to escape.
She is not alone. The Associated Press interviewed 12 young Rohingya brides who have arrived in Malaysia since 2022. The youngest was 13. All of them said they are held hostage by controlling husbands who rarely let them outside. Several said they were beaten and raped by traffickers and other men during the journey to Malaysia, and five said they were abused by their husbands.
The girls’ plight is a result of the deteriorating conditions in Myanmar and in neighboring Bangladesh’s refugee camps, where more than a million Rohingya Muslims live in squalor after fleeing a brutal military crackdown in 2017. Many families are desperate for money and food, and see their daughters as a burden or a commodity.
Some girls are sold by their parents or relatives, while others are lured by brokers who promise them a better life in Malaysia, where there is a large Rohingya diaspora. The brokers arrange the marriages and the smuggling, often charging exorbitant fees that the girls’ families or husbands have to pay.
The marriages are not legally recognized in Malaysia, which does not allow Rohingya refugees to work or access public services. The girls have no rights or protection, and are dependent on their husbands for survival. Some of them are forced to bear children, while others are abandoned or divorced if they fail to please their husbands.
The Malaysian government and the United Nations refugee agency have been trying to crack down on the trafficking and exploitation of Rohingya girls, but the problem persists. The authorities have arrested and prosecuted some traffickers and brokers, and have rescued some victims, but many cases go unreported or unnoticed.
The World Health Organization (WHO) representative to Malaysia, Dr. Jos Vandelaer, said that the situation of the Rohingya girls is “heartbreaking” and “unacceptable”. He urged the international community to do more to address the root causes of the crisis, and to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to the Rohingya refugees.
He also called on the Malaysian government to grant legal status and rights to the Rohingya refugees, and to ensure that they have access to health, education, and social services. He said that the WHO is working with the government and other partners to provide health care and counseling to the Rohingya girls, and to raise awareness about the dangers of child marriage and trafficking.
The Rohingya girls, meanwhile, are trapped in a cycle of abuse and despair, with little hope for the future. M, the 14-year-old bride, said that she misses her family and her home, and that she wants to go back to Myanmar. But she knows that it is impossible, and that she has no choice but to endure her husband’s violence.
“I feel trapped,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”