Earlier this year, third-year Architecture student Imogen McAndrew joined Oxfam in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. She was working on a special project aimed at helping Rohingya refugee women. Here Imogen reflects on her time in the world’s biggest refugee camp.
 

I travelled to the Rohigya Refugee camp in Bangladesh with Newcastle University Architecture student Freya Emerson. Oxfam had invited us to join them on a project to redesign their existing toilet facilities and improve women’s toilet experience to make it safer, more hygienic and more practical.

There are over 800,000 Rohingya refugees currently residing in temporary accommodation run by multiple NGOs in Cox’s Bazaar, south-east Bangladesh. Because of the makeshift nature of the camps, women’s health and specific needs are often not a priority because of a greater and more immediate need to provide the basics.  

When I first arrived, I went on a walk through the camps to understand the current lavatory and washing facility situation. Afterwards I held focus group discussions with women and girls to understand what they saw as the most pressing issues. I spoke to the women and girls through a translator and led the discussions through interactive drawing and model-making. During these discussions we identified short- and long-term design solutions that Oxfam will implement in the new year.

Working with a translator, Imogen held group discussion with women to understand their needs.
Image: Oxfam
Working with a translator, Imogen held group discussion with women to understand their needs.

"Because of the makeshift nature of the camps, women’s health and specific needs are often not a priority because of a greater and more immediate need to provide the basics."

We identified issues that were primarily contextual and ritual based.

Firstly, in some areas, the undulating terrain of the camp meant that loo facilities were looked on to. We therefore introduced woven wood under clear PVC, allowing dappled light to enter the toilets during the day, without women feeling their privacy was compromised.

The ritual of menstruation in the camp is different to western practices. During a woman’s period many use rags to collect the blood. However, because of the nature of the facilities and the privacy surrounding menstruation, we found that many women didn’t have access to areas in which to dry their cloths. This limitation is a huge health concern. In order to overcome this we did two things. Firstly, we proposed the idea of installing a raised shelf placed in direct sunlight in the toilets and washing facilities. The cloths would be washed and placed on this and the sunlight would kill any bacteria. In more communal spaces, we created a pigeonhole system giving each woman her own drying box, ensuring that everyone had a private place to store their cloths.

In the camps there is often no gender segregation in lavatories, meaning women felt unsafe when entering, occupying and leaving the facilities. We identified different ways of manipulating screening to ensure an elongated route that separated the male and female ritual. We also proposed a new method of drainage and sewage collection, involving urine diversion, to overcome the issue of space and take advantage of the ammonia in the urine to grow plants in the surrounding area around the toilets. This would have a knock-on effect of securing soil on the hills and providing a small amount of fresh produce, such as the bottleguard plant.

Our findings were shared with multiple NGOs including Save the Children, UNHR etc, in Cox’s Bazaar. I hope they will encourage conversations around these topics and result in changes in the Cox’s Bazaar camps and others around the world.


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