Background: Sociological studies discuss the strict gender roles and patriarchy in Southeast Asian societies. At times, social work praxis lacks knowledge in working with non-western immigrants and service providers struggle with their own liberal upbringing and ideas of gender equality. This research aims to acknowledge and critically engage with sensitivity on gender roles in Islam while providing agency to Rohingya youth.
Research questions: 1) To understand how service providers understand and navigate strict gender roles of Rohingya youth upon resettlement; 2) To identify strategies of working with individuals from patriarchal societies.
Sample/Method: Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority from Myanmar. Over one million Rohingya refugees have fled due to institutionalized discrimination and ethnic cleaning. In 2013-2016 a cohort of 152 unaccompanied Rohingya youth entered the US through the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) foster care program. This study was designed to look at the nuances of this vulnerable group of refugees.
Data collection included ten focus groups with social service providers (n=23) who worked with Rohingya URMs. Qualitative thematic analysis was used (Vaismoradi et al., 2016). The researcher read all interviews three times to create a preliminary list of codes (Miles & Huberman, 2004). Then, transcripts were deductively coded (Creswell, 2013). Agency staff members met with researchers as part of an external audit process (Morse, 2015).
Results: Our results indicate the themes for RQ1 as patriarchy as protectionist ideology; traditional gender roles perceived by men; conflicting laws with respect to religion and US; Islam and role of women; preconceived and conservative notions of women; service providers struggle to understand traditional gender roles and how they manifest in youth behavior. Social workers should not dismiss cultural power roles or change in hierarchy that can further alienate refugee youth. For example, suggesting male doctors for the initial medical screening may be helpful. For example a participant said, “I’ll never forget one youth who went to... see a female doctor and when they finished and then she gave his diagnosis ... He said she didn't know [what] she was talking about, because she was a woman, specifically.”
Results from RQ2 indicate the need for cultural orientation specifically related to gender roles; assisting youth with the adjustment to an open society; and need for service providers to balance the risk of trafficking vs. the desire of youth to develop romantic relationships. For example a participant said, “consistently look out for it, because sometimes the trafficking doesn't end once they get to United States. So, making sure if they're having a boyfriend or they're starting to have conversations or they’re talking to someone a lot, monitoring that...”
Implications: Navigating cultural competence for refugees from collective and traditionally patriarchal societies isn’t straightforward. Service providers should provide: freedom of choice; space and sensitivity rather than forcing western feminist ideals; more training related to the social phenomenon of manifestation of gender roles. Future CBPR research that engages Rohinygas should create toolkits around how to bridge teaching of Islam and American values to create a common ground.