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Breaking the barriers for undocumented refugees

May 24, 2023
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#digital literacy, #menstrual health, #women's rights, #Rohingya, #refugees
by:Toh Ee Ming
Digital literacy and menstrual health education programmes are changing the lives of refugee women in Malaysia. Here's how.

Swe, a Burmese refugee who requested anonymity due to fear for her safety, recalls the upheaval of leaving her comfortable life in Myanmar in 2018 to build a new life for herself in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. Initially, she had to adapt to a foreign country and an unfamiliar language, share a tiny room with others, take up work as a dish washer - among other informal jobs where she earned between 500 and 800 ringgit (USD 112 to 178) per month. 

All the while, she had to learn how to navigate digital tools that grew in ubiquity and became an inseparable part of life.

The refugees she met, most of whom were new to Malaysia, faced similar challenges. According to Swe, they did not know where to buy groceries or how to find their way around. They also struggled to send photos, videos and location pins through WhatsApp, take screenshots of drivers’ profiles on ride-hailing apps for their safety and search information online.

Since attending a digital literacy workshop, the 47-year-old has made it her mission to share her knowledge with new refugee arrivals to help them integrate into Malaysian society. “I want to contribute back to society,” she told FairPlanet.

As of March 2023, there were some 185,760 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.

According to the UN agency, technology can help refugees overcome a myriad of obstacles that accompany forced displacement. This includes being able to keep in touch with relatives, utilise online mapping tools, store important documentation on online cloud storage, access information about rights, the asylum process and services available for them, access electronic cash assistance, find jobs or complete their education via online learning programmes.

Yet, despite the democratisation of technology, refugees across the globe are 50 percent less likely than the general population to have an internet-enabled phone, while 29 percent of refugee households have no phone at all. Refugees also typically spend up to a third of their disposable income on staying connected, which highlights the fact that internet and hardware costs remain the main obstacles to refugee connectivity.

Picking up digital skills 

This desire to learn new skills had motivated Swe to join a pilot Digital Inclusion and Literacy programme organised last year by Advocates for Refugees Singapore (AFR-SG) and the Myanmar Ethnic Women Refugee Organisation (MEWRO).

Held over eight weeks from September to October, the course aimed to equip participants with increased digital knowledge and skills to access income-generating activities or employment opportunities.

The 10 participants - a mix of older women, housewives and youths - had to follow an intense curriculum, which included modules like introduction to smartphones, email and appointment scheduling, as well as to Google Suite, Social Media 101, Canva and social media Business, cybersafety and job hunting.

The women were also encouraged to come up with a business idea and conceive of ways in which they could develop it further using the new skills they acquired.

As Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, refugees are not formally recognised by the country and are denied the right to education and employment even if they register with UNHCR. In order to survive, refugees try to find work despite their lack of legal status in Malaysia.

“This means that they are limited to jobs that may be dangerous, undesirable with poor remuneration or working conditions, such as jobs in construction, cleaning and the food and beverage industry,” AFR-SG founder Mathilda Ho told FairPlanet. Others utilise their existing skills like baking, jewellery-making or sewing to earn some extra income.

While being equipped with digital skills does not guarantee income, digital literacy can increase opportunities for refugees: they can start a home-based online business, find job offers or develop marketable skills.

“The programme helped plant a seed. We had a participant who was inspired to start importing fabric from her home country and start a family business,” said Ho. “These platforms can be transformational in supporting their livelihood, especially when the refugees will not be getting employment rights anytime soon.” 

Ho pointed out, however, that - in addition to digital skills - refugees would need access to capital to kick-start a business.

“Currently, a lot of programmes are focused on refugee children and their education, but less so for the adult refugees. Unless they have children in school or are actively seeking assistance and attending workshops, they may tend to fall through the cracks,” said Ho.

Tin Tin*, a 49-year-old Burmese refugee and single mother who requested anonymity out of safety concerns, told FairPlanet that the programme was an eye-opening one and useful experience. As a community health worker, she assists with translation work, calls patients, visits NGOs and delivers safety and mental health training for refugees.

Through the course, Tin Tin learnt the basics of Canva to create more attractive content for her training sessions. “If we create nicer slides, it gets people’s attention so they will not be bored,” she said.

Being able to use Google Drive and Zoom has also made it easier to carry out her work and attend meetings virtually via her mobile instead of lugging her laptop around when she is on the move. Tin TIn said that she is also more aware of how to limit her 10-year-old son’s social media usage, and now uses Instagram to keep in touch with her friend who moved abroad.

However, the organisers of the programme acknowledge that they are limited by adequate funding and resources to carry out more regular sessions. Some of their expenses include sourcing laptops and mobile phones, providing a transport and meal stipend and remuneration for the programme partner.

Furthermore, it can be challenging to hold sessions at different times for bigger groups, said Deborah, MEWRO’s manager. Since the organisation is located at Pudu, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, refugees without UN cards may face greater risk travelling to the centre.

Breaking the stigma

In addition to advancing digital literacy, AFR-SG has been promoting menstrual health knowledge and sustainable access among refugee communities since 2018. It does so through a partnership with the non-profit Days for Girls Singapore.

The 2018 workshop (the curriculum of which has been reviewed by FairPlanet) was held at Al-Ikhlas School, a community learning centre in a Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood that is home to hundreds of Rohingya refugee families.

Stripped of citizenship and deprived of education, the mothers are unlikely to share much knowledge with their children about menstrual health, explained Norliza Nordeen, the founder of Al-Ikhlas Hope Society, which runs the school.

The workshop participants gained knowledge on menstrual and body care, which will help girls to learn about “self-care and self-love,” Euddie Png, a chapter leader at Days For Girls Singapore, told FairPlanet.

“Even in this day and age, menstruation is still a taboo for many and girls and women are facing shaming, threats and abuse just because the communities they live in don't understand what menstruation is,” explained Png.

Menstrual health education can promote awareness and understanding, she added, highlighting that these girls are unlikely to receive advice on the topic otherwise, especially when basic survival tasks take up the majority of their day-to-day life.

To help break the ice and make the session engaging as possible, the facilitators also took part in the conversation and spoke to them about common problems such as the pain and moodiness experienced during menstruation.

The participants also received a sanitary kit containing reusable cloth pads and underwear, which was sown by volunteers from Days for Girls Singapore, and were taught how to take care of them so they can last for two to three years.

“What we really want for the girls is to feel good about themselves and not to be ashamed of menstruation,” said Png.

Gaining an understanding about family planning is also crucial, said Norliza, considering the high rate of early marriages among the Rohingya refugee community and seeing as accidental pregnancies can exacerbate their financial strain.

The lack of legal protection, the normalisation of violence within refugee groups and the difficulty in accessing protection and justice for refugee women in Malaysia, contribute to an environment where they are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence, observed the Women’s Aid Organisation in a policy brief.

Such challenges can result in life-threatening healthcare issues, such as sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, menstrual disorders and psychological trauma. These are at risk of going undiagnosed due to cultural barriers, financial constraints and lack of access to healthcare services.

Refugee clinics, for example, can only provide basic healthcare services. But when these undocumented women seek more advanced healthcare assistance in hospitals, they face possible arrest in Malaysia.

Non-profit Health Equity Initiatives reported incidents whereby asylum-seeking pregnant women who were admitted to a public hospital were told that upon delivery of their babies they would be sent to a detention centre. The fear of arrest, detention and deportation often deters these women from seeking professional healthcare assistance to deliver their babies, and may also lead to unsafe abortion or postnatal infections that risk maternal mortality

Norliza recalls how it was initially a challenge to get the workshop attendees to open up and actively participate. The women, many of whom were uneducated and illiterate, were solemn, shy and uneasy. “In one exercise, we asked them to write their feelings about menstruation, but they didn’t want to pick up the pen - like they felt they were beneath the pen… It was the first time that they had been put in the forefront to share about something so sensitive,” she said.

Png added, “We don't want to just give them a kit and say here, use this, it is good for you. We want the girls to feel enriched and even empowered, and hopefully this feeling stays with them."

Image by Overseas Development Institute.

Article written by:
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Toh Ee Ming
Embed from Getty Images
As of March 2023, there were some 185,760 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.
Embed from Getty Images
Digital illiteracy continues to disrupt the lives of refugees, who depend on technology to overcome a myriad of obstacles that accompany forced displacement.
Embed from Getty Images
The desire to learn new skills had motivated Swe to join a pilot Digital Inclusion and Literacy programme organised by Advocates for Refugees Singapore (AFR-SG) and Myanmar Ethnic Women Refugee Organisation (MEWRO).
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