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Deconstructing Dowry: A Call for NGOs to Examine Underlying Social and Economic Factors in the Rohingya Camps 

Rohingya Refugee Muslims Participate in Early Marriages at Cox’s Bazar
Nur Begum, who doesn’t know her age but thinks she is between 14 and 16 years old, walks to her husband’s house with her family on the day of her wedding to Rayeed Alam, 20, in a Bangladesh refugee camp November 30, 2017 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

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This article implores nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to rethink the way they combat dowry, underscoring how honor and purdah are integral to the practice’s proliferation in the Rohingya camps. Dowry has become one of the greatest concerns the Rohingya community faces, particularly given its relationship with child marriage, polygamy, and human trafficking. One way NGOs attempt to counter this practice is by sensitizing the Rohingya community to its harmful nature and inconsistency with Islamic teachings. NGOs also frequently collaborate with religious leaders to communicate this message, enlisting their support as advocates against the practice. However, this ethnographic study revealed that dowry’s prevalence is not due to an ignorance of the Quran’s core tenets and that spreading awareness of dowry’s un-Islamic character fails to debunk a belief held by the Rohingya community. NGOs’ current method for cooperating with religious leaders disregards the indispensable relationship between dowry and honor, resulting in these leaders often being the practice’s most harmful perpetrators. Ultimately, the content of NGO sensitization sessions should focus on working against the idea that greater honor can be cultivated and demonstrated through increased dowry pricing and that a woman’s worth is determined by her adherence to restrictive understandings of purdah


The persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar has engendered one of the largest concentrations of stateless people in the world. Over the past several decades, this ethnoreligious minority, who consider their homeland to be situated in modern-day Rakhine, have endured unbelievable suffering, intergenerational abuse, and systematic discrimination. In 2017, violence reached a genocidal apex, causing nearly 1 million people to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. After crossing the border, the Rohingya population continues to find themselves amid one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises. Despite humanitarian organizations’ remarkable efforts, restrictions on movement, shortage of space, and intense population density continue to severely hinder the capacity for basic human needs to be met.  

These challenges are even more pronounced for women, as displacement greatly threatens their dignity, security, and mobility. One harmful practice that has become increasingly present since the Rohingya community arrived in Bangladesh is dowry, which consists of the property, cash, or commodities given to a husband by the bride and her family upon marriage. This practice dehumanizes women because it means that they are perceived as burdensome property that will be eventually passed along to the groom’s family. Low-earning households, or families with several daughters, have also often come to resort to child marriage, polygamy, and human trafficking to absolve debt. 

One way NGOs have attempted to work against this practice is by setting up awareness sessions for Rohingya community stakeholders on issues related to dowry. For the vast majority of the Rohingya population, matters of religion seem to hold significant importance. In recognizing this, nearly all NGOs structure their awareness sessions on demonstrating that dowry is not a tenet of Islam, and they involve religious leaders in the distribution of such messages. Discussions also largely focus on the harmfulness of the practice to the livelihoods of Rohingya women. However, this ethnographic study conducted in the Rohingya camps reveals that the prevalence of dowry is not related to the population’s unfamiliarity with Islamic teachings or an unawareness of its negative impact on women’s rights. Instead, it is primarily driven by a shared understanding that the practice functions to maintain and elevate individual and familial honor. Across the camp context, brides’ families are compelled to engage in hypergamy, resulting in many accruing exorbitant debts to ensure their daughters marry men well positioned within society. Due to dowry, Rohingya girls’ lives must be increasingly controlled by families, and their worth has been monetized through adherence to restrictive understandings of purdah – a South Asian Muslim tradition that requires women’s seclusion.  

This article contends that NGOs should reconsider their present strategies for mitigating the harmful effects of dowry. Awareness sessions on the un-Islamic and dangerous nature of the practice, as well as collaboration with religious leaders who continue to request payment for their sons, ignore the intrinsic relationship between dowry and honor, and they fail to effectively work against dowry. To illustrate this, an overview is first provided on dowry and its current impact on the Rohingya population obtained from this ethnographic study conducted in the camps and from preexisting research. The article then outlines the existing strategies employed by NGOs to tackle the issue of dowry. Subsequently, it provides an analysis that explores the limitations of this approach. By acknowledging and highlighting the significance of honor and purdah, this article concludes by recommending that NGOs should shape their engagement strategies around the actual beliefs and perspectives of the Rohingya community regarding dowry, rather than superimposing their own preconceived notions about the community on their programs. 

Methodology and Scope 

This article is based on three months of ethnographic research conducted in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Semistructured focus group discussions (FGDs) were undertaken with different community stakeholder groups, including 320 women, 112 male religious leaders, and a small sample of community leaders (mahjis) and men from the camps. These discussions with the Rohingya community were largely undertaken in Camps 3 and 4, but a small number of other FGDs were completed in Camp 4-extension, 11, 12, 22, and 24. This sample is limited in size; in turn, this article does not claim to be exhaustive or statistically representative. The Rohingya community is not monolithic, and conditions, concerns, and intercommunal dynamics vary greatly across the camps. For example, it is often considered that the camps closest to the southern tip of Bangladesh, near the township of Teknaf, are inhabited by those who come from a lower socioeconomic background, whereas in the Kutapolong camps, many residents more often possess connections to family in Malaysia and generally possess greater wealth. Further research is needed to comprehensively understand the differential impacts of this practice on the Teknaf Rohingya community in comparison with the Kutapalong community.  

These FGDs with Rohingya community members were triangulated with one-on-one interviews with humanitarian workers and extensive desk research on dowry and gender in the Rohingya camps. Within this study, humanitarian workers from 10 different organizations were spoken with. Information gathered during these discussions is anonymized, and specific organizations are only mentioned if information has been gathered from public sources. These discussions with humanitarian workers were vital in understanding NGOs’ strategies for tackling dowry and their perceived impact. It should be noted that dowry practices in the Rohingya community have received relatively minimal academic analysis, and as a result, this article had to rely on studies undertaken in India and Bangladesh, where the practice is also prevalent, to unpack why dowry is worsening. 

Dowry is influenced by attitudes toward gender and social hierarchy and informed by surrounding economic conditions. Currently, in the Rohingya camps, restrictions have been put in place that prevent most community members from being legally employed. Long-standing changes in this practice will likely require shifts in the way women’s worth is understood and providing the community with alternative means for men to become economically solvent. Moreover, while NGOs employ a range of methods to address the issue of dowry in the camps, this article specifically seeks to evaluate the content of dowry-related awareness sessions and collaborations with religious leaders to disseminate information on the practice. The outcome of this research is not to suggest that awareness sessions on gender and dowry have no positive effect on how the community perceives women’s rights. Many Rohingya women in the FGDs articulated feeling empowered by discussions during these awareness sessions through understanding the negative impact dowry can have on many facets of their lives. In a U.N. Women report, it was also noted that those who participated in gender-related activities were more open to changes in gender roles compared to those that did not.i Thus, this article only seeks to critique the notion that greater communal awareness of dowry’s harmful and un-Islamic nature is the sole solution to the practice, particularly when this information is disseminated through religious leaders, who are often the practice’s greatest adherents.  

It is important to acknowledge that this article only presents an initial hypothesis regarding potential solutions and alternatives to the content of NGO awareness sessions. Prioritizing the perspectives of the Rohingya community is crucial for the success of any humanitarian or development intervention in the camps. To ensure this, it is necessary to engage Rohingya women in a dialogue on how they believe awareness sessions for men and community leaders can be improved. During this study, women and other community stakeholders recognized the value of these awareness sessions but also elucidated that the issues discussed during these sessions are perhaps not the driving forces behind dowry’s proliferation. Greater insight into Rohingya women’s perspective on how these initiatives can be improved to best support women is vital. It is also likely that women themselves have a strong understanding of which men and religious leaders could serve as legitimate advocates against dowry. 

NGO Awareness Sessions to Combat Dowry 

One of the ways that NGOs have attempted to address the issue of dowry in the Rohingya camps is by running awareness sessions on the harmful and un-Islamic nature of the practice. These sessions normally involve humanitarian organizations gathering community stakeholder groups (women, men, religious leaders, mahjis, et al.) in a multipurpose center run by an NGO to discuss issues surrounding dowry. For example, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) put together sessions for influential persons in the refugee community to discuss a variety of topics such as mental health, dowry, early marriage, family and community violence, and polygamy.ii Humanitarian workers from several NGOs highlighted that discussing the un-Islamic nature of dowry was often at the forefront of such awareness sessions. They emphasized that the practice of dowry within the Rohingya community is a result of their limited understanding of Islam, a perspective seemingly supported by the prevalent opinion among Bangladeshi and foreign humanitarian workers that the religious knowledge of the Rohingya lags significantly behind that of their Bangladeshi Muslim counterparts. Often, these discussions were tinged with a notable degree of prejudice, wherein the values and ideals of the Rohingya community were dismissed rather than respected, leading to a perception of them as a more “primitive” community whose actions were attributed to their lack of education. 

One humanitarian worker also described how their organization creates audio and visual material on issues related to dowry, which is then distributed to nearly all NGOs that work within the Rohingya context. Across the camps, this material was suggested to be deployed as a way of making community members more conscious of how harmful dowry can be to the lives of women. For example, in one of the visual materials, a bride’s parents were depicted as being compelled to provide dowry even though they could not afford to do so. Within the video, a cartoon version of a religious leader describes how the practice negatively impacts the community. They are advised not to demand dowry from the bride’s parents by pointing out the further consequences of dowry practices for domestic and marital relationships. Some religious leaders also articulated that they were provided with a speaker to play the audio material as a means of spreading such messages around the camp. These discussions with humanitarian workers overarchingly demonstrated a focus on two key topics when discussing dowry: that it is not Islamic, and that it negatively impacts the lives of women.  

Disentangling Dowry from Islam 

One area where NGOs fall short in their efforts to combat dowry effectively is centering their awareness sessions around the idea that dowry does not align with the fundamental principles of Islam. In a Western humanitarian context, confusion is often a product of misunderstanding the distinction between dowry and dower. A dower, or a mahr, is an obligation imposed by Islam on husbands as a mark of respect for their new wife and a method of protection against divorce or their husband’s death.iii In Islamic law, there is no specific amount of dower that must be paid, but it is obligatory for a husband to provide whatever amount is decided between the two families. It should be noted that there are a small number of individuals in the Muslim community who argue that dowry is part of Muslim practice due to the Prophet Muhammad’s presentation of some valuables during his daughter Fatima’s wedding. These valuables consisted of very simple items, such as a leather mattress, a flour grinder, and two pitchers. For many, this presentation of gifts was because the husband, Ali, was essentially the son of the Prophet and had lived with him since he was a child. Ali also did not own anything when he married Fatima, compelling the Prophet to provide some valuables for the couple to start a new life. Due to this, it is overarchingly believed that dowry is a practice condoned for Muslims.iv 

Rohingya community members spoken with understood dowry to be something un-Islamic. All Rohingya respondents detailed how dowry was prohibited in Islam and was not a practice that could be found within the Quran. Religious leaders also described how the belief that dowry is not Islamic is widespread in the camps. Other reports corroborate this finding, with Rohingya community members noting that “the dowry system is our culture, not our religion. According to our religion, it is not allowed,” and “the dowry system should be banned because it is not allowed according to Islamic law and the Holy Qu’ran. The camp authorities should collaborate with the religious leaders in the camps to finish this system.”v  

Instead, the custom of dowry in South-Asian Muslim contexts is largely considered to originate from Hindu marriage This marriage tradition was first practiced as wedding gift-giving among higher Hindu castes.vii To complete the marriage ritual, the bridegroom was offered a special gift by the bride’s parents as repayment for their daughter’s lack of financial contribution. Dowry was historically practiced in upper castes, whereas in lower castes, where women were more likely to be economic contributors to their families, mahr was more common.viii There are few cases where the requested mahr amounts to a significant burden to the groom, whereas it is common for a dowry to amount to several times more than the total annual household income of the bride’s family. In Bangladesh, this practice first appeared among wealthy families in urban areas during the 1950s, with the earlier practices being described as completely different in nature from what is seen today.ix There was neither compulsion nor haggling, and this shift from voluntary gift-giving in the upper classes to a precondition for any marriages, even those in rural areas, can arguably not be explained only by looking at the Hindu roots of this practice. 

Dowry, Honor, and Hypergamy 

Instead of being merely a traditional practice, dowry in the Rohingya camps and across South Asia at large has evolved into a way to maintain, elevate, and demonstrate honor and one’s position in the social hierarchy. The main function of marriage negotiation in South Asia can be viewed as a means to balance disparities in status, education, and social standing between two families. Shahana Nasrin frames her study of dowry in Bangladesh through the lens of hypergamy – a system of selecting a spouse of higher status in terms of social, political, economic, or educational background.x As a result, the amount of dowry is often perceived as an investment by the bride’s family in the hopes of acquiring increased social and economic status.xi This logic goes some way to explaining the outcome of results during FGD discussions with Rohingya women. It was articulated that many Rohingya parents believed that a greater dowry should be provided to sons who are from well-respected families, educated, and financially secure. Men from good families – such as sons of religious leaders, mahjis, teachers, and others who are respected in the community – often requested the highest dowry. These leaders often did not directly participate in the dowry-demanding conversation and instead would involve someone from the family to bring up the subject of dowry with the bride’s parents. One group of Rohingya women described how they knew of mahjis and imams who asked for gold buttons for their punjabis as a way of showing off the dowry they have received. From this comment, dowry may revolve around the flaunting of status in the Rohingya camps, making an element of class systems and a way of maintaining the superiority of higher groups over lower ones.xii Rohingya women from this study noted that imams believe that they are well-known and knowledgeable members of the community, and, in turn, request a higher dowry. Many women felt frustrated by the contradiction of having religious leaders speaking out against the practice in public while demanding large sums for dowry in private. Partnering with Rohingya religious leaders to spread these messages has proven to be relatively ineffective, as these leaders often contribute significantly to the perpetuation of this practice. Ultimately, overlooking the connection between social status and the dowry system has led to a disconnect between the content of awareness sessions and the actual reasons for the prevalence of dowry in the camps. 

This study also revealed that increased value was placed on young men who are educated and possess financially secure jobs, resulting in many of those who were educated within the Rohingya community being complicit in this harmful practice. Some of those surveyed said teachers asked for a higher dowry price because of their educated and employed status.xiii Dowry was labeled as always necessary, but many Rohingya women from this study believed that sons who earn income deserve more dowry compared with those in the community who are unemployed.  

It is not only the members of the groom’s family who are exerting pressure to receive a dowry; the bride’s family is also complicit in this practice. A daughter’s chances of happiness and the family’s prestige will increase if she is married to a good family, and a groom will also gain prestige as a high dowry demonstrates a high measure of the worth of the son and family.xiv Gaining employment, education, and financial security garners honor and respect in the Rohingya context and is deemed a justifiable reason to request more money from brides’ families. Much like what has been seen across Bangladesh in recent years, Rohingya parents are wanting to marry their daughters to educated men with higher incomes.xv Thus, brides’ families do not employ dowry as a means to provide financial stability to an unemployed husband and boost his capacity to provide for the future family but rather as a way of ensuring that their daughter is married to someone who already possesses the capacity to earn and provide for themselves. Therefore, the social and economic factors that exacerbate the prevalence of dowry within the Rohingya community are far more complex and nuanced than previously recognized. Addressing these underlying dynamics is central to designing effective strategies that challenge the harmful practice of dowry. 


The specific way in which a woman’s honor is determined plays a dramatic role in heightening the harmful nature of dowry. In the Rohingya community, honor is described to be something obtained through the public performance of certain actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and general adherence to religious and social norms.xvi However, the construction of honor in the camps is distinctly gendered in nature. For men, honor can be cultivated through increased piety, wealth, and education, but for women, honor is only something that can be lost. A woman’s honor also determines the price of a dowry and is something that is often defined by her adherence to purdah. This South Asian tradition is a pervasive concept, consistently mentioned by religious leaders, men, and women as an ideal that men must enforce and women must strive to keep up. Purdah has shown itself to control female action prior to marriage, and a breach of this tradition can have dire monetary ramifications for the family.  

As a result, purdah’s interpretation has become increasingly restrictive, morphing from something that requires women to cover themselves from wrist to ankle when outside the home to limiting a woman’s mobility so that she cannot leave the home without being accompanied by a male family member. When a girl reaches puberty, she is removed from public spaces, as this arena “belongs to men, boys, children, and to some extent married women.”xvii Some religious leaders spoken with for this study suggested that they perceived even a woman’s voice to be a breach of purdah, resulting in the restriction of the capacity for women to go to school or even speak within the confines of their homes. It was noted by a Rohingya mosque committee member that “purdah means not only covering from top to toe, but a woman’s voice can also be considered [in it]. If a woman speaks … loud from inside the house, and a man hears it and thinks … how beautiful she might be, creating this desire is also a sin. … So a woman should speak in a low voice to maintain her purdah.”xviii Dowry has meant that adolescent girls must become invisible to ensure they are not burdensome to the family. Attempting to deconstruct these restrictive conceptions of women’s honor during awareness sessions will potentially aid in more effectively targeting the root causes of why dowry exists, and in turn, yield greater success in NGO programming.  

Rethinking Awareness Sessions 

There is a pressing need to reevaluate the design and delivery of awareness sessions conducted in the Rohingya camps. These sessions primarily concentrate on illustrating the divergence between the practice the divergence between the practice of dowry and the fundamental tenets of Islam and the detrimental consequences this practice has for women’s well-being. Discussions with Rohingya community members demonstrated that while these points are indeed crucial, they fail to address the intricate sociocultural matrix in which dowry is embedded. Honor dynamics and the tradition of purdah play pivotal roles in perpetuating the dowry system and exacerbating its danger to women’s lives. The omission of these aspects of dowry from current awareness has resulted in the implementation of strategies that are not holistic or all-encompassing.  

Dowry’s relationship with restrictive interpretations of purdah, which equate a woman’s worth with her adherence to seclusion and modesty, should also be challenged. Women during FGDs articulated the great value in deconstructing restrictive patriarchal values during awareness sessions. For women, these conversations have empowered them within the community, encouraging them to question and rethink norms that have promoted their subordination. However, it was equally stressed that despite a better understanding of their rights, dowry continues to persist. Thus, while awareness sessions are largely regarded as valuable, their capacity to effectively address dowry as they stand remains limited. To bolster the effectiveness of such sessions, they must be imbued with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the community’s sociocultural fabric.  

This article makes a first attempt to outline potential content that could be included in discussions with the Rohingya community. However, NGOs must open dialogue with Rohingya women and other stakeholders to gain a more comprehensive grip on the realities of why dowry exists and how the community believes this practice can be ameliorated. These discussions should not shy away from the influence of socioeconomic stratification and how dowry is perceived as a mechanism for achieving or demonstrating social status.  

Another essential aspect that should be rethought is the current reliance on religious leaders to disseminate antidowry messages. While on the surface this may seem like an effective strategy given religious leaders’ capacity to reach large crowds during Friday prayer, it overlooks the complex role these leaders often play as significant perpetrators of dowry. Instead, NGOs need to identify and collaborate with community influencers who can champion the cause without such conflicts of interest. Rohingya women likely have important insights into what religious leaders are genuine in their desire to see the practice eradicated from the community and should be relied upon in the development of future initiatives related to dowry. Rather than taking at face value all Rohingya religious leaders’ claim that they stand against dowry because it is un-Islamic, investigation must be undertaken to find individuals who are genuine advocates against dowry.  


To address dowry in the Rohingya camps, NGOs must reassess their current methodologies, which currently lean heavily on spreading awareness about the practice’s nonconformity to Islamic principles and its negative impact on women. This approach is limited in its success as it bypasses critical sociocultural elements that fuel the practice, such as the dynamics of honor and the implications of the purdah tradition. This ethnographic study underscores the need for a more nuanced understanding of dowry and its proliferation in the Rohingya community. It is evident that dowry is perceived as a marker of social prestige, tied intimately to familial honor, hypergamy, and the observance of purdah. Future NGO initiatives should prioritize a more comprehensive, community-centric approach to combating dowry. Sensitization sessions should work against the belief that higher dowry equates to greater honor and that a woman’s worth is predicated on her adherence to restrictive interpretations of purdah. Simultaneously, they should foster dialogue that challenges the harmful dynamics of honor and hypergamy, thereby empowering the members of the Rohingya community to reevaluate and reshape their attitudes towards dowry. By doing so, NGOs can more effectively address the root causes of dowry and contribute to sustainable change within the Rohingya community. 

End Notes

1 UNHCR. (2022). Four years on: Shifting gendered perceptions and experiences. Gender in Humanitarian Action Working Group. P. 27

2 IOM Bangladesh. (2020, October). Rohingya humanitarian crisis response: Monthly situation report. IOM UN Migration.
sites/g/files/tmzbdl1006/files/documents/IOM%20Rohingya%20Crisis%20Response_External%20Sitrep_October%202022.pdf, p. 4

3 Singh, R. K. (2010). Law of Dower (Mahr) in India. Journal of Islamic Law and Culture, 12(1). P. 59

4 Waheed, A. (2009). Dowry among Indian Muslims: Ideals and practices. Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 16(1)

5 Centre for Peace and Justice, Brac University, & The Asia Foundation. (2021, June 14). Perceptions of Rohingya refugees: Marriage and social justice after
cross-border-displacement. XCEPT. Pp. 6, 7

6 Huda, S. (2006). Dowry in Bangladesh: Compromizing women’s rights. South Asia Research, 26(3), 249–268.

7 Nasrin, S. (2012). Crime or custom?: Dowry practice in rural Bangladesh. Lambert Academic Publishing. P. 28

8 Bradley, T., Subramaniam, M., & Tomalin, E. (Eds.) (2009). Dowry: Bridging the gap between theory and practice. Zed Books Ltd. P. 5

9 Nasrin, S. (2012). Crime or custom?: Dowry practice in rural Bangladesh. Lambert Academic Publishing. P. 29

10 Nasrin, S. (2012). Crime or custom?: Dowry practice in rural Bangladesh. Lambert Academic Publishing. P. 31

11 Nasrin, S. (2012). Crime or custom?: Dowry practice in rural Bangladesh. Lambert Academic Publishing

12 Chowdhury, F. D. (2016). Islam and Women’s Income: Dowry and Law in Bangladesh. Routledge. P. 82

13 Some humanitarian Rohingya workers stated that after learning about the harmful nature of dowry practices, they and others who were educated
stopped requesting dowry. However, this response should be tempered by the fact that these humanitarian workers would likely lose their jobs if they
openly admitted to taking dowry. The practices, reasoning, and perception of dowry are far from monolithic in the camps.

14 Mandelbaum, D. G. (1998). Women’s seclusion and men’s honor: Sex roles in North India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The University of Arizona Press. P. 68

15 Chowdhury, F. D. (2016). Islam and Women’s Income: Dowry and Law in Bangladesh. Routledge

16 Coyle, D., Sandberg-Petterson, M. S., & Jainul, M. A. (2020). Honour in Transition: Changing gender norms among the Rohingya. IOM & UN Women.,
p. 14

17 Save the Children. (n.d.). Results for Children: 2014 Annual Review., p. 24

18 Coyle, D., Sandberg-Petterson, M. S., & Jainul, M. A. (2020). Honour in Transition: Changing gender norms among the Rohingya. IOM & UN Women.,
p. 21

This essay originally appeared in the anthology “The Accountability, Politics, and Humanitarian Toll of the Rohingya Genocide” To download the full anthology, click here.

Camillia Gray Has a master’s degree in Theological Studies from Harvard University, with a focus on Islamic studies and the intersection of religion and humanitarianism. From 2021 to 2023, she traveled several times to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, to conduct field research on NGOs’ relationships with religious leaders and prevailing belief systems in the Rohingya camps. She is currently a security adviser for the International NGO Safety Organization in Northeast Syria. She previously has worked with the United States Institute of Peace, the International Committee for the Red Cross, Oxfam, and the United Nations Development Programme. She tweets @Camillagray

Umme Tamima is a humanitarian worker in Bangladesh, began her journey by volunteering with Oxfam in livelihood programs during the Rohingya crisis of 2017. Over three years, she worked with Rohingya women, empowering them and advocating for their rights. Transitioning to the World Food Programme (WFP), she now contributes her expertise to the accountability team, ensuring efficient aid distribution. Previously, she served in protection roles with ActionAid Bangladesh.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the New Lines Institute.

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