In this month’s newsletter, we would like to introduce PhD student, Ena Tripura from the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Ena’s supervisors were Professor Susanne Schech and Associate Professor Maria Giannacopoulos.
Ena’s recently submitted thesis, “Sexual and gender-based violence and the humanitarian response: The case of Rohingya refugee women in Bangladesh” received outstanding results from the examiners. Ena’s research investigated humanitarian actors’ interpretation and response to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against Rohingya refugee women living in Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camps in Bangladesh, and the Rohingya refugees’ perception of SGBV against women and the available protection mechanism in the camps.
We asked Ena to share what led to a Phd and what the research is about, the most enjoyable and hardest parts of a PhD journey and what advice for new and current students.
Tell us about yourself
I was born and brought up in a remote village of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in Bangladesh. I belong to the Tripura community, one of the indigenous and minority ethnic communities of Bangladesh. The CHT was in political unrest for nearly three decades until the signing of the CHT accord in 1997. Because of violence and conflict, we always lived in fear, and many of my community people had to take shelter in India as refugees. The majority of the people of CHT and my ethnic community, including my parents, did not get the opportunity to go to a school. We did not have enough schools, and parents could not afford to send their children to schools because of poverty and the unrest political situation. In addition, girls’ education was frowned upon in Bangladesh and more in underprivileged ethnic minority communities.
In my childhood, I never thought I would go to a university, let alone get a PhD. But I am fortunate that my father was very supportive of my study, and the political situation has improved. After my higher secondary school, I got an Indian Government Scholarship to study Bachelor of Arts (honours) in sociology at the University of Delhi from 2006-2009, and the Australian Government’s Development Awards to study Master of Arts in Women’s Studies at Flinders University from 2012-2013.
In Bangladesh, I worked with the United Nations Development Programme, Helen Keller International, Stromme Foundation and a few other organisations in different capacities, focusing on empowering women and girls. At present, I am working as a casual professional at Flinders University. I am hopeful that in the future, I will be able to apply the learning and knowledge I gained through PhD to the benefit of people in need. As a first Tripura woman with a PhD degree, I feel incredibly proud of myself and my achievement. However, I also feel a deep sense of responsibility and the expectation people have of me as the most educated woman in my community.
I usually keep myself engaged with activities related to professional development and learning new knowledge and skills. But sometimes, I take time to listen to music, watch movies, exercise, and go out with friends and family.
What led you to undertake a Phd?
In Bangladesh, I was professionally and personally involved in projects and activities encouraging women’s empowerment: economic empowerment, political participation, and access to education. My colleagues and I organised a series of community meetings and workshops during my work with the United Nations Development Programme.
I noticed that indigenous women from CHT were more hesitant to speak in meetings or gatherings. Their ideas and knowledge were often not valued by fellow participants and community leaders. The CHT indigenous women are also misunderstood and misrepresented in media reports and literature. With few exceptions, the literature is written by men and/or women from different communities and nationalities because we do not have enough women in indigenous communities to write about our issues and problems.
It created my interest in gaining knowledge about research and writing academic papers. I also had a very supportive supervisor and a senior management team member who encouraged and inspired me for higher study. Then my interaction with lecturers/professors at Flinders University during my study for a Master of Arts in 2012-2013 made me feel that I could undertake a PhD.
What is the topic of your PhD, and why is it important to you?
My PhD topic is SGBV in humanitarian response. I focused on Rohingya refugee women living in camps in Bangladesh as a case study. According to the United Nations (UN) report, on average, 1 out of 5 displaced and refugee women experience SGBV. The number of displaced and refugee people is increasing, with about 90 million displaced people in 2021; at least half of them are women and girls.
The issue of SGBV against women thus affects millions of women in the world and their families in many ways: economically, socially, and physically. I have extended family members who were refugees once. I lived and worked with displaced people. Therefore, I can relate to the horrific experience of SGBV against women in a refugee situation. It is a violation of human rights and a global health issue. Unfortunately, across the globe, the incidence of SGBV is unreported.
In one of their reports, the UN stated that only 1 out of 10 women are interested in reporting a case of SGBV. The unreported cases of SGBV against women are believed to be higher in refugee camps and among the most vulnerable refugee communities, like the Rohingya living in Bangladesh, because of social stigma, reprisal from perpetrators, and lack of necessary support services. It is, therefore, very important to critically investigate SGBV against refugee women and bring it to the attention of academics and professionals to help improve the lives of Rohingya refugee women and other displaced/ refugee women in Bangladesh and around the world.
Tell us about your research
The issue of SGBV against women has received unprecedented attention in humanitarian discourses in recent decades. However, it continues to grow acute in refugee situations. This thesis investigated the representation of SGBV in the UN humanitarian gender legal instruments and by humanitarian actors working for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. As the first primary research on the issue in recent years, this thesis offers significant insights into the enduring injustice of violence against Rohingya women and the humanitarian actors’ role in addressing the issue.
The findings confirm that despite numerous supportive legal instruments, humanitarian actors’ efforts in addressing violence against Rohingya women are significantly compromised by a range of factors: the narrow focus of the issue, donor-driven and top-down interventions, encampment, bureaucratic complexity, and mistrust between humanitarian actors and refugees. This thesis recommends a collective approach to humanitarian response mechanisms with the active participation of Rohingya refugee women.
What has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the journey?
I enjoyed the company of my PhD office mates and fellow PhD friends. We formed cohorts; we shared a lot of joyful moments, supporting and offering critical analysing of our projects. We debated and discussed many issues, which helped us generate new ideas.
I also enjoyed the conference presentations for my milestones. I used to be very nervous and worried about public speaking. Because of frequent participation and presentation at conferences, I gained confidence and developed skills in speaking and making presentations in public.
Another best part of my PhD journey was living and dealing with new challenges. Sometimes, I felt frustrated and confused with self-doubt, but simultaneously I enjoyed overcoming every new challenge I faced.
What has been one of the hardest parts of the journey?
The Covid-19 lockdown was the most challenging part of this journey. Because of mobility restrictions, I could not travel abroad to collect data. I had to conduct online and over-phone interviews with participants located in Bangladesh. Recruiting and making participants comfortable with the interviews from a distance was difficult. The situation was aggravated because of the poor mobile and internet connection in Bangladesh and the time difference between Australia and Bangladesh.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, staying focused on my research project was challenging too. For example, there was a time I felt very worried about my family in Bangladesh. Then, I was frustrated about not having enough opportunities to meet and share ideas with my PhD colleagues and supervisors.
Frequent change of supervisors because of the university’s restructuring process was another hardest part of my PhD journey. In my four years of study, I worked with five different supervisors. However, I am fortunate that, in the end, I got two very dedicated, supportive, and encouraging supervisors.
What’s a highlight of your student life at Flinders?
I would say friendship; I met a group of beautiful friends with whom I shared a lot of frustration and happiness. They will remain my lifelong friends.
What advice would you give to those who are about to undertake a PhD?
PhD is a very challenging but rewarding journey with many ups and down. Instead of working alone, try to have an office space in the university and increase networking and interaction with peers and academics. Peer counselling helps ease a lot of problems and generates ideas. Researching and writing a PhD thesis is a very intense process, time-consuming, and requires a strong commitment. It can take away concentration from all other aspects of life and important issues. Amidst all these, try to balance study with other important life issues, develop a routine that works best for you, and develop a good professional relationship with your supervisors.
It is very normal to feel lost and stupid in the beginning. Keep pushing yourself, have a positive attitude that you can do it, and work hard. One day you will smile like me. 😊