Nayapara camp, Bangladesh – Romeda Begum’s victory speech was neither long nor captivating.
“It was my first experience talking to a large crowd,” said the 26-year-old, recalling the moment after being declared the winner of an unusual election to pick the leader of a camp hosting Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
“I was at a loss for words.”
Romeda’s success was the result of an experimental project to elect community representatives from the Rohingya population living in Shalbagan, an unregistered refugee camp that is an extension of the government-recognised Nayapara camp in Teknaf, south of Cox’s Bazar.
Carried out for the first time in June, the voting process at Shalbagan and its three sub-blocs were organised by the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) in collaboration with Adventist Development and Relief Agency and Bangladeshi local authorities.
The goal was to allow the camp’s 16,000-strong Rohingya population, most of whom arrived here almost a year ago after fleeing a fierce crackdown by neighbouring Myanmar‘s army, to make decisions for themselves, says Muhammad Saiful Islam, the government-appointed camp-in-charge (CIC) official of Nayapara.
“We cannot impose any decision on them, so we decided that a type of representative community should come from them,” he said.
|Muhammed Saiful Islam said the election empowered women at the camp [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Residents at Shalbagan were asked to pick a committee consisting of 12 representatives – four from each bloc – and three bloc leaders, all subject to a one-year tryout.
Their main duties include trying to resolve the disagreements between the community members and find solutions to the problems, as well as liaise with NGOs and the CIC to implement certain decisions.
Candidacy was open to both men and women between the ages of 25 and 35. To be able to run, the eligible candidates also had to meet certain criteria, including having no criminal record and no instances of antisocial behaviour.
SM Liaquat Ali, the project field coordinator of all of the NGOs working in the camp, said that the election campaign highlighted “transparency, accountability, governance and communication” from the community.
“The elected were then given training in code of conduct, legal rights, rules and responsibility, and emergency response training,” he added.
The mazis’ malice
But not everything went smoothly.
According to Ali, the Rohingya community leaders – known as mazis – who were selected by the Bangladeshi army at the start of the crisis to keep order at food distribution points made several attempts to disrupt the election process.
|Nayapara camp, in the Teknaf sub-district south of the town of Cox’s Bazar [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
“When they were informed that there would be new community leaders, the mazis became engaged in some malpractice,” Ali said, citing instances of blackmailing and corruption, including purposely distributing food aid unequally.
Islam, the CIC, was more blunt. “They hampered the election process by threatening candidates not to run,” he said.
Yet intimidation and bullying failed to deter the candidates and the election went forward as planned.
Women at the forefront
Because more than 50 percent of Shalbagan’s population is female, the local community chose half of their representatives to be women.
“This will empower women day by day,” Islam said, adding that the vote took place after the women attended a motivational programme that raised awareness of their rights.
Sitting outside a communal shelter at the camp, Nur Begum, a Rohingya NGO volunteer, said that she considers the “women-led system as more beneficial than the previous mazi way”.
“The women succeeded in engaging more people from the community to volunteer with NGOs,” she said, adding that even though the “solutions remain evasive”, the new system “has made it easier for me as a woman to raise [the] issues we face.”
|Nur Begum, a Rohingya NGO volunteer at the camp [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Nearby, Senwara Begum nodded in agreement.
“Because the leader is of the same gender as us, it is easier to go to her with our problems; there is better understanding,” she said.
For Romeda, who fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state with her sister in October 2016, before the rest of the family joined them at the height of the Rohingya crisis in August 2017, that is down to being actively involved.
She said she participates in all the meetings held by NGOs and the CIC, where she is given the floor to speak her mind.
She also scans the camp several times a week to listen to the grievances of her community.
“My mobile phone is always on to receive complaints, ranging from domestic quarrels, fraud and physical fights,” she says.
“I am expected to solve them.”
|Romeda Begum, the 26-year-old camp leader [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Since her victory in June, Romeda has solved 25 cases mostly related to domestic problems.
She said the “hardest” involved a man who beat his wife and would not give her food.
“The man changed after I told him he could be arrested,” added the camp leader, adding that being a divorcee has no bearing on the men who also come to her with their troubles.
“I feel more respected by them,” she said, before adding: “But I would still not remarry again.”
‘Do the best for the community’
Just like every week, Romeda and the other elected representatives met earlier in August with Ali, the project field coordinator, inside a communal bamboo and tarpaulin structure to discuss the situation at the camp.
Joined by a translator, the participants sat in an L-shape on UNHCR-stamped plastic sheets over the slightly wet mud.
Romeda was more in her element here. Her face veil was flung over her head, revealing an expressive face. She spoke assertively and listened to Ali with rapt attention.
|Inside the weekly meeting of the bloc representatives and leaders with the project field coordinator [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
The meeting initially focused on finding new private accommodation for a dozen displaced Rohingya who lost their shelter due to landslides two months ago and now live in a communal space.
Later on, the discussion moved on to addressing the tensions with the mazis in the camp.
“They consider you lot a blow to their authority,” Ali said, raising his voice slightly in an attempt to drown out the sudden staccato tap of rain on the plastic-sheeted roof.
“Don’t fall to their level,” he urged them.
“The best response to their threats is to do the best you can for the rest of the community,” added Ali.
“You need to set an example to everyone else.”