KUALA LUMPUR: Roima Yunus (pic) was only 11 when she fled her village in Arakan, Myanmar because of the escalating violence against the Rohingya there.
She ended up in the hands of traffickers who brought her to Thailand and then subsequently to Malaysia.
While life in Arakan was terrible, nothing could have prepared her for her journey to Malaysia.
She was sexually abused by countless men and she became pregnant before having a miscarriage.
Roima was later sold to her husband in Malaysia who also ended up sexually abusing her. She fled her husband and is now living alone somewhere in Kuala Lumpur.
Her story is told in "Bou", a 30-minute film by Mahi Ramakrishnan about Rohingya child brides in Malaysia.
"It was just so dark and depressing. Emotionally, the trauma and sexual abuse she went through when she was 11 hit me hard. At one point I couldn’t do the interview. I then just gave her a hug and sat next to her. I didn’t know what to do," said Mahi.
Mahi said she explored this aspect as of the community as the trafficking and the buying of the child brides intrigued her.
The film premiers this Sunday at Refugee Fest: Inclusion For a Better World at Black Box in Publika, Kuala Lumpur.
The festival from Thursday to Sunday features various arts, cultural and educational programmes about refugees.
Besides Roima, Mahi spoke to two other Rohingya child brides, two husbands of these child brides and a couple of traffickers.
“The Rohingya men here were commissioning brides from traffickers. They were negotiating payment and terms to try and get a bride, sometimes from their own village. This seems to be crucial for them,” said Mahi who added that because of the continuing violence in Arakan, the children had no choice but to flee through the traffickers.
The brides can be sold for up to RM16,000, said Mahi.
Considered to be stateless and often subjected to arbitrary violence and forced labour in Myanmar, the Rohingya are considered by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
As of June this year, there were 59,100 Rohingya refugees registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, although unofficial estimates are considerably higher.
She added that traffickers in Arakan would go into the villages with someone known by the parents. The parents are told that they would not be paid for their children’s journeys here.
"They are told that their children will be safer in Malaysia. They are told that there is no violence and that they are able to work. Parents agree because they think that their children will be alive at the very least," she said.
Another of the girls Mahi spoke to was an illiterate girl who was abandoned by her husband before giving birth to her now one-year-old child.
Mahi added that the husbands have said that they are doing the girls a favour as they would experience more abuse if they are left with the trafficker.
"They believe that these girls have been given a lease of life," she said.
Mahi added that child protection is currently impossible as child marriage is currently a culturally entrenched practice among the Rohingya.
However, she points out that the girls never wanted to get married in the first place.
"At the end of the day, these are not adults who can make an informed decision about their lives. None of them wanted to get married," she said.
Mahi said that she hopes to engage with the UNHCR to document the number of child brides in Malaysia and to look at ways of mental health intervention.
"This film talks about children who are vulnerable, children who had no choice but to flee. I think the most decent thing for anyone to do is to embrace them and find a way to integrate them into society,” she said.