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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 17  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 259-266

Focus group discussions with Rohingya adolescents on current and future perceived needs and wants from two distinct cohorts in Bangladesh

1 PhD, Mental Health, Care Practices, Gender and Protection (ex)Head of Department in Bangladesh, Action Against Hunger (ACF), Canada
2 MSc, Lecturer, Department of Psychology, University of Dhaka, Dhaka, Bangladesh
3 PhD (c), School of Family Medicine, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
4 MPh, Deputy Program Manager in Bangladesh, ACF, Canada
5 PhD (c), Faculty of Education, Université de Montréal, Montreal, Canada
6 PhD, Senior Advisor for Mental Health, Care Practices, Gender and Protection Sector, ACF, Paris, France

Date of Submission19-May-2019
Date of Decision14-Aug-2019
Date of Acceptance29-Sep-2019
Date of Web Publication29-Nov-2019

Correspondence Address:
Joel Montanez
Health Experiences Research Group, St. Mary’s Hospital Centre, 3830 Lacombe Avenue, Hayes Pavilion, Suite 4720, Montréal, QC H3T 1M5, Canada
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/INTV.INTV_24_19

Rights and Permissions

Qualitative interviews were conducted with 24 single teenagers (aged 13–17) within gender-defined groups, 12 from Myanmar (arriving on or after the August 2017 influx) and 12 who were born in Bangladesh, to identify current and perceived future needs and wants of Rohingya adolescents. Participants reported that needs and wants were often associated with difficult lived experiences in Myanmar or Bangladesh. General results from both groups highlight the need to prioritise education and freedom of movement, as well as eradicating bullying and harassment. Other priorities that crossed cohorts included independence, citizenship, identity, restitution of land and property and access to nutritious and varied food. Myanmar-born females prioritised health, wellbeing, family and dignity-related needs, while Myanmar-born males highlighted needs involving restitution and both education and marriage for their siblings. Adolescents of both genders born in Bangladesh prioritised rights involving education, freedom and movement and reported a need to contribute to society beyond the Rohingya community. Female and male adolescents born in Myanmar expressed contrasting perceptions regarding the needs of the other gender. Unprompted answers suggested prioritising mental health management and community support to tackle the collective traumatic memories of the group of adolescents born in Myanmar. Overall findings would suggest tailoring interventions in accordance with the needs of distinct cohorts and genders, and to facilitate awareness among adolescents of the needs of other distinct groups.

Keywords: adolescent, assessment, focus group discussions, needs, Rohingya, wants

How to cite this article:
Montanez J, Prativa S, Ormel I, Banu MJ, Gulino N, Bizouerne C. Focus group discussions with Rohingya adolescents on current and future perceived needs and wants from two distinct cohorts in Bangladesh. Intervention 2019;17:259-66

How to cite this URL:
Montanez J, Prativa S, Ormel I, Banu MJ, Gulino N, Bizouerne C. Focus group discussions with Rohingya adolescents on current and future perceived needs and wants from two distinct cohorts in Bangladesh. Intervention [serial online] 2019 [cited 2023 May 28];17:259-66. Available from: http://www.interventionjournal.org//text.asp?2019/17/2/259/271884

  Introduction Top

Background and context

Mental health and psychosocial support research has highlighted the need for an increased focus on needs assessments (Gerdin, Chataigner, Tax, Kubai, & von Schreeb, 2014) and with adolescents (Blanchet, Roberts, Sistenich, Ramesh, Frison, & Warren, 2013). Therefore, to enhance the involvement of beneficiaries and improve the Mental Health, Care Practices, Gender and Protection (MHCPG&P) programming of Action Against Hunger (ACF) so that it aligns better with the needs and wants of the Rohingya adolescent population, ACF decided to implement systematic focus group discussions (FGDs) with key programme participants. All Rohingya refugee adolescents participating in ACF programmes reported difficult lived experiences in Myanmar or Bangladesh. In Myanmar, these experiences included seeing or hearing monks (current and former) and military personnel committing acts of violence against family members or the adolescents themselves. Examples of rape, murder, torture, shooting, beating, kidnapping, burning down houses and seizing of land, homes or cattle were reported. In Bangladesh, painful experiences reported included being teased and bullied, name-calling, discrimination, witnessing or experiencing direct physical violence.

This field report presents results from the first FGD with female and male Rohingya adolescents who reside in the Cox’s Bazar area and participate in ACF’s activities.

  The Project Top


Qualitative interviews were conducted with 24 unmarried Rohingya adolescents aged 14–17 years, 12 having arrived in Bangladesh on or after the August 2017 influx and 12 whose parents had come into the country before they were born. Questions were elaborated to identify the perception of Rohingya adolescents of their own needs and wants. Gender separation was inherent in the programme design in order to remain culturally appropriate, in line with Rohingya traditions and daily practice.

Teenagers were invited to participate with the help of young Rohingya volunteers working in the MHCPG&P programme on a first-see-first-asked basis, within the two largest areas where displaced Rohingya live in Bangladesh, Ukhia and Teknaf. Volunteers asked only teenagers of their own gender, and all but one adolescent agreed to participate. Males in all the groups did not know each other before the FGDs took place, while about half of the females in each of these two groups knew each other before the activity. There was no remuneration given for participation.

Focus groups

There were two main cohorts based on geographic location. Participants were assigned to groups according to where they had resided the longest since birth or arrival in Bangladesh, ultimately either in Ukhia or Teknaf. Consent to participate in the study, including the interviewing conditions, the room and the presence of every member of the research team, the audio recording, as well as the pictures taken at the end of the process, were explained, discussed and agreed upon with the participants beforehand.

Teknaf area adolescents

The adolescents of the Teknaf area (aged 14–17, females and males) had acquired refugee status in the country due to their parents having arrived in Bangladesh before the year 2000. As a result, they had been given, at first, the option of attending schools both outside and inside the camps for refugees or displaced persons. At the time of the interviews, the six male teenagers in the group had attended schools outside or inside the camps, while two female participants studied in the camp madrasa (Islamic seminary) and one female attended the host community school. The remaining three female participants described doing household and family-assisting activities while occasionally learning school-related subjects with relatives inside the house.

Ukhia area adolescents

The Ukhia participants (females aged 14–16, males 14–15) had no official status in Bangladesh and therefore also no access to Bangladeshi schools. Before living in Bangladesh, these female adolescents performed activities that they describe as household work, outdoor play, having fun with and assisting their siblings, assisting their mothers in cooking and caring for sick family members and unofficially studying at home. However, three of these activities (outdoor play, having fun with siblings and studying at home) rarely took place since arriving in Bangladesh, with their time currently devoted to cooking and household work. The Ukhia male adolescents reported that their time before Bangladesh was used for working the land, growing food, studying in the home and seeing friends. Other than occasional days of work in the camps after arriving in Bangladesh, these participants reported no new actions and an interruption of their previous activities since August 2017.


Two senior psychologists fluent in Bengali and with a working knowledge of the Chittagonian language led the interviews, always accompanied by a translator. This was done to address any potential psychological issues that might arise. One of the psychologists had worked until recently in the field, with frequent contact with Rohingya beneficiaries. The two translators, one from Ukhia and one from Teknaf, were field workers within the MHCPG&P department with native knowledge of both Bengali and Chittagonian (a dialect of Bengali), with over two years of direct work with Rohingya beneficiaries. Although the Rohingya language has no universally accepted written script, spoken Rohingya and Chittagonian share many similarities (Translators without Borders, 2018). This is the reason why Chittagonian speakers are often enrolled to communicate with Rohingya community members. The interviews were audiotaped and transcribed in Bengali. They were then distributed for peer discussion among translators before completing a full translation in English.

The primary investigator supervised the interviews in situ. Participants answered all questions, were attentive to each other and compared or discussed their answers when deemed necessary. Interviewers did not insist when individual participants did not answer or complete a question or did not provide an example. Interviewers allowed ample time between questions and offered a debriefing period at the end of the FGDs without the audio recording in operation. Collaboration was excellent and participants appeared eager to speak from the beginning to the end of the sessions; no one reported excessive distress or a desire to leave the FGD situation. At the end of the sessions, participants systematically reported having felt nervousness at the start of the process but felt significantly better at the end. The follow-up debriefing of their reactions to the interview also occurred without evidence of discomfort.


Questions were elaborated based on discussions with psychosocial field staff who had worked successfully with Rohingya teenagers and had experience of addressing their needs. The principal investigator chose the final questions based on knowledge that could best inform the content of the MHCPG&P programme.

Participants in each group were asked 11 open questions about their needs and wants. Questions were directed at three distinct moments of their lifetimes: now, in three years and ten years. There were no reported problems concerning the understanding or translation of these questions during the investigation. The questions were:
  1. If you had a magic wand, what would you do for yourself?
  2. What do you need or want the most for your life right now?
  3. What will you need or want the most for your life in three years?
  4. What will you need or want the most for your life in ten years?
  5. Is there something that you lost that you need or want back right now?
  6. Is there something that you have never had that you need or want right now?
  7. What does your body need or want?
  8. What does your heart need or want?
  9. What do young Rohingya women need or want?
  10. What do young Rohingya men need or want?
  11. Now, close your eyes for three minutes and think about what you need or want the most for yourself; only one thing. It could be something you already said, or it could be something new.

Question 9 or 10 was asked depending on the gender of the participant, with the aim of evoking the adolescents’ perception of the needs and wants of their peers of the opposite sex. Findings1 are presented in a condensed form (see [Table 1] and [Table 2]), with comments per group, followed by discussion and conclusions.
Table 1: Summary of identified needs

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Table 2: Summary of identified needs of the other gender

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About the answers

Reported needs and wants were often described as solutions to painful experiences in Myanmar, and to a certain extent in Bangladesh. Moreover, the absence of status or citizenship and the enforcing of restrictions regarding movement and education all had an effect on the needs and wants reported.

  Discussion and conclusions Top

Nationality, citizenship and identity

With the exception of the Myanmar-born females, all other groups had an interest in having the citizenship or ownership of a country no matter where, while keeping the Rohingya identity.

Bangladesh-born males reported wanting the enforcement of human rights and freedom for the Rohingya people, whereas Myanmar-born males reported strong restitution needs. When looking at their reports sequentially, the latter reported, first, the wish to defeat militarily the perpetrators of their traumatic experiences, and second, the desire to have the ability to defend themselves in Myanmar and therefore take back their previously owned property. The Myanmar-born male group also highlighted the stress associated with the nonacceptance of their citizenship and identity in Bangladesh. One participant summarised their transience and limited sense of having a nation in relation to how they perceive their bodies being affected by their reluctant migration:

‘My body is very stressed out now because our country is in Myanmar. We are just a traveller here in Bangladesh. Our body is our country.’

Last but not least, the desire of the Myanmar-born males for INGOs to enforce the rights of the Rohingya may suggest their hope for more collective support (see below, A common wish).

Security, restitution, rights and justice

While freedom of movement was a need for all groups of adolescents, the need to go back to Myanmar or getting back their country was reported only by males (irrespective of place of birth). The Myanmar-born male participants reported wanting back their ancestral land, along with their homes and animals, but only after being accepted as Rohingya by the current inhabitants of Myanmar. The Bangladesh-born males asked for more security in the camps (as did the Bangladesh-born females who also identified personal security needs in Cox’s Bazar for their male compatriots: see [Table 2]).

However, only Myanmar-born male adolescents reported wanting retaliation or defence vis-à-vis past or potential perpetrators of violence against their community. In order to do so, these males verbalised wanting to put into place means such as military might and self defence, whereas the female teenagers from Myanmar pointed to mediation. That is, tempering the behaviour of potential perpetrators of violence against the Rohingya by having the power to ‘make their hearts soft’, referring to the perpetrators.

Lastly, the Myanmar-born males reported wanting future legal trials for perpetrators of traumatic acts against the Rohingya. This may suggest the capacity, on the part of the male teenagers born in Myanmar, to gradually privilege legal and peaceful mechanisms as a solution for their past and current predicament, even if currently these adolescents seem occupied with a desire for an eye-for-an-eye form of restitution.

Education and work

All participants reported the need to access educational facilities and agreed on the utility of an education for the purpose of employment and, as a result, independence. Furthermore, the Bangladesh-born adolescents wanted full access to school facilities outside the camps, which they had before the last influx, as well as access to higher education (which is limited in their areas) and learning digital technologies.

Most groups indicated specific educational contents they needed for their current and future life. For instance, Myanmar-born females reported an interest in learning survival skills for women in the world of today − including ways to do away with gender-related obstacles to access services and livelihoods and skills to develop abilities for everyday problem solving. This group also stated the desire that any skill learnt be transferable to younger siblings and eventually to their offspring.

The males born in the host country indicated an interest in agriculture and business, learning about their own culture and incorporating interpersonal skills to connect effectively with others. These adolescents also spoke about their desire to have access to governmental jobs as well as medical and engineering professions. In their own view, this was a reaction to experiences in which, regardless of their qualifications, Rohingya would not have access to key jobs in Bangladeshi governmental offices or within the judiciary system. These participants reported that, similar to their situation in Bangladesh, their elders had hoped and strived to be doctors, engineers or government officials in Myanmar, but in the end, they would have had neither opportunities nor the access to these positions. Access to these careers and positions is thus something they long for strongly today.

Health and wellbeing

The need to access nutritious and diverse food appears important for all but the Myanmar-born males. However, the need for living space with lower temperatures and humidity was an issue primarily for the young men and women who had arrived in the last influx. These newcomers were still responding with their wishes to the lack of basic comfort in their everyday life.

Basic health and wellbeing needs were overrepresented in the Myanmar-born females. Along with the aforementioned needs, these participants insisted on the need for community awareness and support, as well as individual management of the emotional sequela to their losses. In addition, Myanmar-born females reported the wish to see or be in contact again with their killed family members (especially their fathers), to prevent the bad influence other people may have on them, to live peacefully, in harmony and honestly, and to prevent a lack of future. These participants explained that their needs for community understanding, distress management and to see their lost ones again were a natural consequence of having lost relatives or having witnessed the violence inflicted on their loved ones. For example:

‘They tortured our sister in front of our eyes. We came here as we were unable to bear this pain anymore. The local people here say we ran away from there. We feel very distressed when anyone speaks about Myanmar and feel like crying our heart out.’

Generally speaking, when compared to the other groups, the group of female adolescents born in Myanmar appear to pay more attention to needs and wants regarding health and wellbeing, being more alert to their emotional needs and also to potential negative influences from others. The level of (mental) health awareness and/or vulnerability of this group may need prioritisation.

Stigma, dignity and social participation

Dignity needs were prominent in Myanmar female adolescents who had lost their parents in the events associated with the last influx, especially those had who lost their fathers. First of all, they reported (with obvious distress) having to perform a ritual-like act of keeping their head lower to signal the disgraceful loss of a key family member, and this, especially when their peers speak about living parents.

‘Those who have their father can hold their head up, but as my father is no more, I have to keep my head lower, towards the ground. Those whose fathers are alive say a lot of bad things to us, but we can’t say anything to them. We have to listen to them quietly.’

On the other hand, specific wants to bring an end to name-calling by the local young population was reported by all groups of adolescents. First, wanting to have the right attire (wearing newer clothing) to prevent harassment when going out, visiting others or during festivals and special occasions was mentioned by female teenagers born in Myanmar. Second, female participants born in Bangladesh reported an intense need to study which was also, among other things, a means to do away with harassment; ‘they harass us by saying that we are unable to be anything, but that they can be successful by studying.’ Third, adolescents born in Myanmar would like to have a football field, among other things, because they are ‘shooed away with sticks and called names when trying to play football’ (in places where local adolescents normally practise the game). Finally, the group of male adolescents born in Bangladesh reported the desire to have their own country also, among other things, in order to avoid harassment.

‘Wherever we go people harass us calling Burmaiya (Rohingya with a negative connotation) that is why we want an independent country of our own.’

In all groups, the Myanmar-born females who had lost their parents were the only adolescents who reported the need to empower themselves to participate in social interactions without shame. They specifically manifested the need to keep their heads up when relating to others. Secondly, while all groups reported having wants to counteract harassment, the two female groups articulated wants (access to education and to newer clothing) involving means to prove that the content of the harassment is wrong, while still remaining in the current society. The two male groups, on the contrary, reported wants that involve the means to get away from the harassment and bullying (having their own football field and their own country).

Thus, when it comes to harassment and bullying, the groups propose solutions that differ according to gender and have different consequences. For the female adolescents, the solutions do not necessarily exclude the host society, while the male adolescents’ proposal suggests the exclusion of the host community.

Marriage and reproduction

The female adolescents born in Myanmar reported, as a future possibility, the intention of having a good groom from a good family, getting married and having children. Furthermore, the aspiration to have children was conditional to ensuring livelihoods. That is given that we are (1) old enough, and we might (2) get married, and might also (3) have children, then we would need (a) facilities to get our children educated and (b) healthy food. A home or a house was also included as something preferred. Regarding these answers, it is important to highlight that, first, these adolescents considered the possibility (not the certainty) of marriage and children. Second, that they did not take their future lives for granted.

‘In the next ten years we might either be dead or alive. In the meantime, we might get married and have children. We need to get them educated. We are uneducated, but we want them to study.’

In other words, the female group born in Myanmar spoke not only about having children as a possibility, but also as a potential consequence of their age. The group also spoke about planning and specified preferred conditions prior to marriage, suggesting that ensuring the education (facilities), health (nutrition) and security (a home) of their children may be a stronger or more current desire than childbearing or raising children itself. In other words, they wish their descendants to have the benefit of what they themselves do not (fully) have. Incidentally, the female group born in Bangladesh also spoke about wanting an educated husband in order to also have educated children, while the male groups did not report this. Therefore, marriage and reproduction do not appear to be a priority for Rohingya youth. In fact, the female participants from Myanmar did not seem to have enough certainty over the occurrence of parenthood or indeed the reality of their own lives in the long term.

Contribution to family and society

While the four groups reported a need to educate their siblings, both Myanmar-born groups reported wants involving getting their siblings (of both genders) married. Female Bangladesh-born adolescents reported wants involving helping family members in need, while female Myanmar adolescents specified the need to cure (physically and/or mentally) their parents and siblings. On the other hand, adolescents of both genders born in Bangladesh reported the need to contribute to society at large, beyond helping their own families. For the female participants this meant by improving people’s lives or becoming independent doctors or teachers so they have the capacity to provide services and contribute to the development of Bangladesh. For male teenagers this meant through building structures and spaces designed for living activities and education. As such, those Rohingya adolescents born in Bangladesh appear to have fewer needs involving family and close community and more the need to cultivate desires into larger sectors of their living society.

Perceived needs of the other gender

Regarding the opinions adolescents have of the needs and wants of their peers of the other gender, while the views of Bangladesh-born adolescents on their counterpart’s needs and wants appear reasonably accurate when compared to the latter’s reports, the opinions of adolescents born in Myanmar show great contrast. As such, the Myanmar-born male adolescents report that their counterparts wish to return to the type of security provided by past living habits, would like to return to Myanmar for a respectful and religious life within the household and would also want to keep covered, which is not mentioned at all by the female adolescents themselves. In addition, the Myanmar-born male group asserted that the losses, especially the death of key male members of their counterpart’s families, would have triggered their need to return to their previous living spaces.

‘The girls of our age have lost a lot of things, some of their husbands and fathers were killed, so they would either stay at their brother or sister’s place. Now they want to go back to their own country and live in their own home.’

However, the accounts of the Myanmar-born female teenagers do not corroborate these assertions. On the other hand, these female adolescents reported only one common opinion regarding the needs of Myanmar-born male adolescents, that is, to work in order to provide dignity and a respectable life for their mothers and sisters (i.e. new clothes to look beautiful and the means to stay in veil). Nonetheless, the accounts of male adolescents born in Myanmar also did not corroborate this perception.

A common wish

The following quote: ‘We first want the people of the world to control the situation in our country, then we would love to live there’ is the verbatim reply of a participant prompted by the question regarding what the adolescents will need and want for their lives in three years. It represents the view of the Myanmar-born male group and indicates what these adolescents would like the world to do within a conceivable period of time. Within the current Rohingya crisis situation, this may be a wish suggesting that vulnerable young Rohingya in Bangladesh still need collective support in order to eventually take the future of their nation into their own hands. When looking at their self-reported needs and wants, we understand that we NGOs are still part of their collective vision regarding their conditions and their own destiny. Even if not to their specific wish, the phase of work suggested below is intended to respond to these vulnerable young people’s hopes to still work with us.

Next phase of work with focus group discussions

The next phase of this FDG collaboration, in which all participants have agreed to continue, concerns how to interweave the adolescents’ needs and wants into the reality of ACF’s programmes and within the forces and limitations of everyday life, including the rules of the camps. After thinking and brainstorming based on these ‘whats’ (the needs and wants of males and females Rohingya adolescents), the organisation may propose a strategy of ‘hows’ (operationalised activities tailored to the needs and wants of the proposed adolescent groups) including the FGDs’ input. In all, activities should be adjusted to reflect the values, mandate and operations of the organisation in light of the views of the beneficiaries. Finally, donors should be made aware of the complex wants and needs of the adolescent population, whose voices and influence should be systematically taken into consideration when matters regarding financial contributions and expectations are brought to the discussion table.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

1Complete responses are available through the corresponding author.


  References Top

Blanchet K., Roberts B., Sistenich V., Ramesh A., Frison S., Warren E. (2013). An evidence review of research on health interventions in humanitarian crises. London: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.  Back to cited text no. 1
Gerdin M., Chataigner P., Tax L., Kubai A., von Schreeb J. (2014). Does need matter? Needs assessments and decision-making among major humanitarian health agencies. Disasters, 38(3), 451-464.  Back to cited text no. 2
Translators without Borders. (2018). Rohingya Zuban: A translators without borders rapid assessment of language barriers in the Cox’s Bazar refugee response. Geneva: TWB.  Back to cited text no. 3


  [Table 1], [Table 2]

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