By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D.
NEW YORK, August 10 (C-Fam)–Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh to escape violence and persecution in Myanmar, including a decade-long two-child policy directed at their community. Now housed in crowded refugee camps, their fertility is being targeted once again, this time in the name of humanitarian assistance, with support from UN agencies. One advocacy group, Ipas, has seized upon the Rohingya’s plight to promote an international right to abortion.
Ipas has long worked to distribute and promote manual vacuum aspirators for abortion around the world, more recently expanding into distributing abortion pills. Because abortion is highly stigmatized and legally restricted in much of the developing world, Ipas also conducts “values clarification” seminars designed to break down anti-abortion sentiment among health care workers at all levels and expand the pool of abortion providers.
After decades of thwarted attempts to create an international human right to abortion through UN mechanisms, the international abortion battle has expanded in recent years to humanitarian law—the laws of war—and while the legal case is flimsy, the effort has many prominent backers.
In line with this effort, and in response to the large-scale humanitarian crises arising from war and natural disasters, Ipas recently launched a version of its “values clarification/attitude transformation” (VCAT) curriculum with a specific focus on crisis settings. The toolkit is described as “not designed to change people’s values,” but “often lead[s] to increased awareness and comfort with the provision of safe abortion care.”
Working in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Ipas responded quickly to the Rohingya refugee crisis, working to train health workers to perform abortions and, in the words of Ipas spokeswoman Sharmin Sultana, “overcoming the abortion stigma amongst health facility managers and staff.”
One woman highlighted in Ipas’ advocacy materials is Noor, a refugee who became pregnant after being raped by a soldier while trying to flee from Myanmar. In Bangladesh, Ipas-trained workers gave her “menstrual regulation services”—the legal phrase for a first-trimester abortion—“ because she felt it would be a sin to bring a rapist’s child into the world.”
The story makes no mention of an attempt to clarify Noor’s values on this point, despite Ipas producing several workshop components designed to make health workers question their notion of “sin” with regard to abortion.
The fact that UNFPA enjoys what Sultana refers to as a “good, effective partnership” with Ipas is noteworthy given UNFPA’s insistence that they do not provide abortion services—which was repeated when the Trump administration announced it was cutting funding for the agency in 2017. Ipas is unique among “reproductive health” NGOs in that it focuses narrowly on abortion rather than family planning more broadly.
Rohingya families continue to struggle with the hardships of statelessness and displacement, as the government of Bangladesh considers offering them incentives for voluntary sterilization. Aid agencies continue to give them contraceptives, which are often thrown away, due to religious objections combined with a cultural appreciation for large families.
Having escaped violence at the hands of their enemies, Rohingya women and girls must now be wary of those who claim to be friends. A joint NGO statement calling for respect of their “sexual and reproductive rights” expressed concern that abortion access might be limited in refugee camps, without mentioning the human rights violation of Myanmar’s two-child policy. Ipas was one of the four endorsing groups.
Editor’s note. This appeared at C-Fam, a publication of the Center for Family and Human Rights.