on 13th June 2016

EDD16: Women as a force of disaster and climate resilience: Bangladesh perspective

This article, prepared for CARE’s co-hosted session at the European Development Days, presents a perspective from CARE Bangladesh experience on the increasing role of women as forces of climate resilience.

There is a saying regarding differential vulnerability of populations, ‘disasters do not discriminate; society does’. This indicates that severity of disasters do not depend only on the magnitude of the event; it mostly depends on social, economic and political conditions of the affected populations. Women are more vulnerable to disasters because of biological, social and economic distresses, while their livelihoods heavily rely on natural resources, which are highly dependent on natural hazards. In a ranking, women of Bangladesh are behind in disaster management index, 6th among 7 South Asian countries in the South Asia Women’s Resilience Index.

Global study says women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die during a disaster.[i] According to IUCN, in the 1991 cyclone & flood that killed 140,000 in Bangladesh, 90 per cent of victims were women and girls. And, death rate of women aged 20-44 years was 71 per 1000 while it was only 15 per 1000 for men of the same age group.[ii] In emergency situations women and children make up 70 to 80% of those needing assistance, and women constitute up to 80% of refugee and displaced populations.[iii]

The above statistics clearly depict the vulnerable conditions of women. The obvious question is why women are more vulnerable?

  • Women are often more vulnerable because they are mostly excluded in planning & decision making.
  • Their livelihoods rely on natural resources which are highly sensitive on natural hazards.
  • They have less access to resources (Strong influence of cultural norms on unequal distribution and use of rights, resources and power which determine individuals’ livelihoods).
  • They are not recognized as farmers, and deprived from govt. agricultural allocation.
  • They are victims of the gendered division of labour: Primarily responsible for domestic duties, are caregivers (They collect water, cook, clean & take care of the sick/kids and play vital role in agriculture).
  • Early warning systems are oriented towards
  • After a natural disaster, women are more likely to become victims of domestic and sexual violence.
  • Migration of male members puts women and girls overburdened and insecured. In absence of capable men in house, women’s potential of sexual abuse is high. To avoid harassment migrants parents arrange early marriage for their girls.
  • Agencies engage women more and more in the name of empowerment without analyzing their reproductive role back in the family. Ultimately women become overburdened with productive and reproductive roles which could be addressed engaging men in the process. Example – South-West Flood of 2000.

All of these aspects make women more vulnerable to cope with shocks and stresses.

However, gender relations in Bangladesh have been undergoing a process of considerable transformation over the last two-three decades as part of broader process of economic transition and social change. While Bangladesh had a number of plans in place to reduce women’s vulnerabilities, those policies had a little impact on practice and there was a long way to go in that regard.

Although progress has been considerable in many spheres, women’s changing roles have also given rise to a range of new challenges i.e., due to climate change that require shifts in policy and practices.

In the changing contexts, it has been well understood that portraying women only as victims is a barrier for the development. Rather women should be considered as a force of building gender equitable disaster resilience. Because, it has been seen women play an active role in all aspects of disaster risk management and resilience building but these roles are mostly invisible, rarely acknowledged and not included into formal systems.

Besides, they can play a paramount role in the management, conservation and use of natural resources. Women’s primary responsibility for growing food and collecting water, firewood has made them keenly aware of their environments. Women also play vital role in advocacy and building social cohesion & community mobilization especially in urban areas.

In short, women are well positioned to be agents of change through mitigation, management and adaptive activities in households, workplace, communities and institutions.

This is why the involvement of women in climate and disaster resilience is considered as a key factor as they have a vital role to play in decision-making and responding to disasters.

CARE actions towards gender equitable disaster resilience include but are not limited to

  • assessing gender-specific risk and engaging both women and men in decision-making on equal footing because it has the value of their contribution recognized. Women and men are consulted differently, which is critical prioritization of hazards and development actions;
  • supporting women on income diversification and savings schemes;
  • having women volunteers for floods on board (approx. 50% women), sending flood alerts through mobile phones, and including women in social mobilization and disaster awareness in urban;
  • engaging men in household chores, i.e. fresh water management should take into account the needs and role both of men and women through an equitable approach;
  • facilitating women participation to Farmers Field School where 50% are women (Victim women now became change agents of  for the promotion of adaptive variety and agricultural technologies. As a result- at household level – increased men’s sensitivity which helps to increase women mobility and taking part in family decision and at authorities level – women are recognized as farmers).

Besides, CARE facilitated community-led water movement in South West Bangladesh to solve the water crisis where women were forefront. The communities worked to put forward the issue of potable water due to salinity and arsenic contamination as an immediate issue. Over 32,000 letters were sent out to Prime Minister from communities. The huge heap of letters moved the PM so much that she issued an order “…to take steps towards solving the issue on an emergency basis”.

So, we see lots of potential for women’s role in disaster and climate risk management. A great deal of the tasks relevant to disaster mitigation and Climate Change adaptation require community mobilisation and shared autonomous and scientific knowledge. Women have been key actors at the community level and possess demonstrated capacities for the transfer of informal knowledge. There should be an increased role for women in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in Bangladesh not just as recipients of programmes but as shapers and deliverers of initiatives.

Finally – women are vulnerable to disasters: this was a framing from yesterday; it has been changed now: women are the driving force for resilience.

 

Palash Mondal, Team Leader – Building Resilience of the Urban Poor (BRUP) Project at CARE Bangladesh.  

 

[i] Peterson, K., ‘Reaching Out to Women when Disaster Strikes’, White Paper, Soroptimist, 2007

[ii] Ikeda, k. Gender Differences in Human Loss and Vulnerability in Natural Disasters: A Case Study from Bangladesh’, Indian Journal of Gender Studies September 1995 2: 171-193.

[iii] Gender and climate change policies, IUCN/2013.

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