In a bedroom in Malaysia that has become a prison, the 14-year-old girl wipes away tears as she sits cross-legged on the concrete floor. It is here, she says, where her 35-year-old husband rapes her nearly every night.
Last year, the Rohingya girl sacrificed herself to save her family, embarking on a terrifying journey from her homeland of Myanmar to a country she had never seen, to marry a man she had never met.
It wasn’t her choice. None of this was. Not the decision to leave behind everything she knew, nor the arranged marriage for which she was not ready.
But her family, she says, was impoverished, hungry and terrified of Myanmar’s military, which unleashed a series of sweeping attacks against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority in 2017. In desperation, a neighbor found a man in Malaysia who would pay the 18,000 ringgit ($3,800) fee for the girl’s passage and — after she married him — send money to her parents and three little siblings for food.
And so, the teenager — identified along with all the girls in this story by her first initial to protect her from retaliation — tearfully hugged her parents goodbye. Then M climbed into a trafficker’s car packed with children.
She didn’t yet know the horrors that awaited her. All she knew then was that the weight of her family’s survival was on her slender shoulders.
She sits now in her bedroom in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, her thin frame cloaked in teddy bear pajamas. The room is devoid of furniture, its blank white walls chipped and stained. Dangling from the ceiling is a knotted rope, designed to hold a hammock for any babies her husband forces her to bear.
“I want to go back home, but I can’t,” she says in a small voice barely above a murmur. “I feel trapped.”
Deteriorating conditions in Myanmar and in neighboring Bangladesh’s refugee camps are driving scores of underage Rohingya girls to Malaysia for arranged marriages with Rohingya men who frequently abuse them, The Associated Press found in interviews with 12 young Rohingya brides who have arrived in Malaysia since 2022. The youngest was 13.
All the girls interviewed by the AP said they are held hostage by controlling husbands who rarely let them outside. Several said they were beaten and raped by traffickers and other men during the journey to Malaysia, and five said they were abused by their husbands. Half the girls are pregnant or already have babies, despite most saying they were not prepared for motherhood.
When asked if they had protested their parents’ decisions to marry them off, they appeared confused.
“This was my only way out,” says 16-year-old F, still haunted by her memories of Myanmar, where in 2017 she watched as soldiers burned her house, raped her neighbors and fatally shot her aunt. In the years that followed, so frequent were the soldiers’ gunshots in the night that she was terrified by the sound of her friends popping balloons in the day. “I wasn’t ready to be married, but I didn’t have a choice.”
Now trapped with a 27-year-old husband, she yearns for a freedom she and her people have never known.
“The Rohingya have no place to be happy,” she says.
These unwanted marriages are the latest atrocity bestowed upon Rohingya girls: from childhoods marred by violence to attacks where security forces systematically raped them to years of hunger in Bangladesh’s squalid refugee camps.
Global apathy toward the Rohingya crisis and strict migration policies have left these girls with almost no options. The military that attacked the Rohingya overthrew Myanmar’s government in 2021, making any return home a life-threatening proposition. Bangladesh has refused to grant citizenship or even basic working rights to the million stateless Rohingya wasting away in its camps. And no country is offering any large-scale resettlement opportunities.
And so the Rohingya are increasingly fleeing — and those who are fleeing are increasingly female. During the 2015 Andaman Sea boat crisis, in which thousands of Rohingya refugees were stranded at sea, the overwhelming majority of passengers were men. This year, more than 60% of the Rohingya who have survived the Andaman crossing have been women and children, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.
In Bangladesh, Save the Children says child marriage is one of the agency’s most reported worries among camp residents.
“We are seeing a rise in cases of child trafficking,” says Shaheen Chughtai, Save the Children’s Regional Advocacy and Campaigns Director for Asia. “Girls are more vulnerable to this, and often this is linked to being married off in different territories.”
Because these girls live on the fringes of the fringe, accurate statistics on how many live in Malaysia do not exist. But local advocates who work with the girls say they have seen a spike in arrivals over the past two years.
“There are really a lot of Rohingyas coming in to get married,” says Nasha Nik, executive director of the Rohingya Women Development Network, which has worked with hundreds of child brides since it was founded in 2016.
Inside the organization’s small office in Kuala Lumpur, there are toys for the girls’ babies, stacks of educational kits about gender-based violence and a row of sewing machines where women and girls learn to make jewelry and other crafts they sell to help support themselves.
“There are no other safe spaces for Rohingya women in Malaysia,” Nasha says. “Domestic violence is very high.”
Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations’ refugee convention, so the girls — who enter the country without permission — are less likely to report their assaults to authorities. Doing so could put them at risk of being thrown into one of Malaysia’s detention centers, which have long been plagued by reports of abuse.
Malaysia’s government did not respond to the AP’s requests for comment.
To understand why a parent would send their child into this hell, you need to understand the hell from which they came.
Outside her bamboo and tarp shelter in one of Bangladesh’s camps, Hasina Begum’s sobs swallow her words as she speaks of her daughter.
Begum last saw 16-year-old Parvin Akter in 2022, when she sent her and Parvin’s brother, Azizul Hoque, on a boat bound for Indonesia. Begum hoped Parvin would make it to Malaysia to marry a man who could support her. But an AP investigation concluded the boat sank with all 180 on board.
Begum’s husband abandoned the family years ago, leaving her to care for their six children. The food rations weren’t enough to sustain them, and Begum couldn’t afford the traditional dowry that Rohingya brides’ parents are expected to pay grooms in the camps, typically thousands of dollars. The grooms in Malaysia forfeit dowries and often send money to the brides’ parents.
Local gangs, meanwhile, terrorized Begum’s family, once kidnapping Azizul and holding him until Begum borrowed 50,000 taka ($450) for the ransom.
Which is why Begum says she sent her daughter and son to Malaysia — so they, and the rest of her family, could survive. Even now, another boat carrying Rohingya refugees has been missing at sea for weeks, likely with other girls who may never make it.
Begum sits now amid the misery and the muck of the camps as the stench from a nearby latrine wafts by, wishing she could hear her children call her “mother” one more time. She pulls up a photo of them on her phone, then presses it to her heart.
“To be Rohingya,” she says, “is to suffer.”
For 14-year-old M, like so many Rohingya girls, the suffering started early. At age 9, she began working as a housekeeper for a local family in Myanmar. The patriarch often beat her, but she never told her parents. She knew her $1 a day wage helped feed her family.
She has a few fond memories of Myanmar: the play shop she set up with her best friend. The cows her family once owned. But after attacks against the Rohingya in 2017, soldiers stole their animals. Her family descended further into poverty, unable to afford the dowry to marry M off in Myanmar.
She climbed into the trafficker’s car just one day after her parents told her she’d been promised to a man in Malaysia. She didn’t know his name, hadn’t seen his picture.
In the car were several other girls headed to Malaysia for marriage. M was frightened. She’d heard stories of traffickers raping girls along the route.
For a week, they drove and walked through the jungles of Myanmar and south into Thailand. After crossing into Malaysia, they stopped at a house. Four of the trafficker’s friends arrived and each selected a girl, telling them that they would drive them to their fiancé’s homes.
Instead, M says, the man who chose her — who looked to be around 50 — drove her to another house. When they got inside, he pushed her. She began to cry and scream.
“If you keep shouting, I will kill you,” he warned. And then he raped her.
She tried to fight him off, but he beat her. She wanted to die.
In the morning, he locked her in the bedroom and left her there all day with no water or food, though she couldn’t have eaten anyway. The next night, he returned and raped her again. Afterwards, she vomited.
She was terrified he would kill her.
M’s experience is not an anomaly. One girl spoke of a boat captain who viciously beat her back with a stick. Another spoke of a trafficker who beat her, threw her to the ground and threatened to kill her unless she persuaded her parents to send him more money. She later wept as she helplessly watched the trafficker rape a group of girls who couldn’t pay more. The youngest, she says, was 12.
Sixteen-year-old T was frightened from the moment she saw the boat on the beach in Bangladesh. Though she and her family were starving in the camps, she couldn’t bear to leave them for a man she did not know.
“Even if you don’t have food,” she says, “if you have your parents, you’re happy.”
The boat took her east into Myanmar, the country she’d fled five years earlier after soldiers burned her house and shot dead her best friend. From there, a trafficker hustled her and around 50 others onto another vessel headed south. The passengers were packed in so tight she could scarcely move, sitting stiffly for days with her arms hugging her knees.
A month-long journey on foot and by car through Thailand followed. The roads were crawling with authorities, so for 12 days, she and a group of girls were stuck in a house. With them, she says, was a trafficker who showed them no mercy.
Each night, she says, the trafficker ordered a different girl to have sex with him. When T’s turn came, she tried to run, but he caught her. She began to cry. “This is not your father’s house — stop being dramatic,” he barked. Then he beat her back with a belt.
It was Ramadan, and when the time came to break the traditional fast, T was famished. But the trafficker told her she would receive no food unless she had sex with him.
She cannot speak of what happened next.
Now inside a shadowy apartment in Malaysia, she shakes her head and stares at the floor.
“I was so scared of him,” she says quietly.
Marriage did not end the girls’ anguish. What it did end were their childhoods.
After enduring the second rape by her trafficker’s friend, M was handed over to another man who drove her to her 35-year-old fiancé’s apartment.
The sight of her future husband terrified her. She didn’t dare tell him she’d been raped, because then he would reject her.
Her fiancé insisted they get married that day and called an imam to the apartment. In agony and bleeding from the rapes, M could not bear the thought of wedding night sex.
All she wanted was to go home. Instead, she submitted to the wedding ceremony, then told her husband she had her period, so he wouldn’t touch her.
A Rohingya women’s advocate, who confirmed M’s account to the AP, heard about the situation and intervened, telling the girl’s husband that his exhausted bride needed time to recover from her journey. The advocate then brought M to the hospital for treatment and cared for her until she was physically healed.
When M returned to her husband, she learned he was already married with two children. She had no power to object to the situation, or to the beatings, cruel taunts and rapes she regularly endures. She said nothing about the abuse to her parents, lest they blame themselves, and lest her husband stop sending them 300 ringgit ($64) a month.
In her spartan bedroom, where her pink cellphone with its heart decals and delicate ribbon is the lone glimmer of girlish joy, she wonders out loud why this man hurts her.
She can summon no answers.
Across the city, 13-year-old D plays with a blue plastic whale, rhythmically opening and closing its jaws as she talks about the pain of her wedding night and all the nights since.
“You can see my body looks older, but my heart and mind are still young,” she says.
Yet her body does not look older. She is tiny, with the soft cheeks of a child. Her ankle is scarred from the jungle floor that slashed her skin open as she and a trafficker walked through Myanmar barefoot, to avoid making noise.
Back in Bangladesh’s camps, she says, she loved to play jump rope with her friends. Here in Malaysia, she is not allowed to play with anyone. She dreams of going to the market to see the colorful stalls. But her 25-year-old husband won’t let her outside.
She disliked him from the moment they met, on their wedding day. When the imam arrived, she began to cry and refused to consent to the marriage. One of her cousins beat her until she said yes.
That night, her husband raped her. The pain was excruciating. Afterwards, she fled to the nearby apartment of an older Rohingya woman she had befriended.
Her husband later forced her to return home. And now he regularly forces her to have sex.
She spends her days sleeping and sitting and scrolling through TikTok. Sometimes the loneliness overwhelms her to the point of tears. When her parents call and ask if she is happy, she tells them she is not. But she doesn’t tell them the extent of her despair. Their lives are hard enough, she says.
She prays she won’t get pregnant, but her husband wants children. She knows it’s only a matter of time.
Her voice grows desperate.
“I want to run.”
In an apartment complex filled with locked metal gates and caged-in balconies, the babies’ cries echo through the cavernous hallways. They are the children of child brides, who arrived while many of the brides still felt like babies themselves.
Yet motherhood was another choice made for them, and another shackle they cannot escape.
Sixteen-year-old R cradles her wailing newborn in her skinny arms, his tiny hands reaching for her. She looks back at her baby, who was born in a rush of pain 24 days earlier, but her eyes are vacant, her bony shoulders slumped.
She and her 27-year-old husband began trying for a baby one month after they wed. She wasn’t ready, but it didn’t matter.
Though her life in Bangladesh was bleak, as one of 11 children, she never felt alone. In Malaysia, when her husband leaves for work, she has no one.
And so when her baby arrived, she felt a hint of joy.
“When I saw my baby’s face, I was happy, because now I have a friend,” she says softly.
But she cannot sleep, because he always wants to breastfeed. He cries all the time. She does, too.
Sixteen-year-old T survived 12 days in the Thai house where the trafficker had raped a different girl each night. She then prepared herself to survive marriage and all that would follow. Yet five months after her son was born, motherhood still feels alien.
“Even if we are not ready for babies, we have to be,” she says. “I don’t feel like a mother.”
She doesn’t know how to breastfeed and her 25-year-old husband refuses to allow anyone to help her. He has never held their child.
Her husband verbally abuses her and won’t even let her go to the playground outside their apartment. She is banned from speaking to visitors. She prays that any daughter she has will go to school rather than marry young.
Her nervousness manifests as a girlish giggle. But when she speaks of the ache for her own mother, her grin fades and her eyes well with tears.
“I miss my mom,” she says. “I want my parents.”
Back inside M’s bedroom, the 14-year-old thinks back to the dreams she once had while growing up in Myanmar: to go to school, to get a job, maybe even as a teacher or a doctor.
She still longs for those things, but knows they are impossible. So she has stopped thinking of her future. For now, she just tries to survive her present.
Another girl, 16-year-old S, enters the bedroom. Her swollen belly strains against her pink T-shirt, which is adorned with hearts and butterflies.
S is 7 months’ pregnant and homeless. Her 25-year-old husband divorced her and left her for another teenage girl the day he learned S was pregnant. Though her husband was abusive, she pleaded with him to stay. She hasn’t heard from him since.
She spends her days begging on the streets for food and a place to sleep. Today, she has been permitted to stay at M’s apartment for a couple of nights. It’s a temporary reprieve.
She still wears her wedding ring and plans to sell it just before the birth to help pay the hospital delivery fee. But the ring is worth a couple hundred dollars at best, and the hospital will charge more than $1,000.
For Rohingya girls, she says, the agony never ends.
“From the moment we are born, every day we face difficulty after difficulty,” she says.
She hopes her child will go to school. She hopes her child will be kind. But she has stopped hoping for anything else.
“I once dreamed of having a happy family, but my husband divorced me,” she says. “I don’t dream much anymore.”