Pretty in blue?
At the start of the twentieth century, parents in the United States would dress their baby boys in pink and baby girls in blue. Western society believed pink was a far more masculine colour, symbolizing strength; and blue a daintier colour more suited for girls. Needless to say much has changed since then: Pink is now seen as the more feminine colour.
Gender difference is largely culturally determined. It changes over place and time, and not, as many people believe, a biological fact. In Bangladesh, it is now becoming more culturally acceptable for women to have their own careers and for men to visit beauty parlours. Gender seeps into our very existence without many of us ever quite realising it, shaping not only our sense of self but how we interact with the world at large.
Trapped in different worlds
So how exactly are we taught gender in Bangladesh? Obviously it varies across different socio-economic classes and regions. Generally speaking, we are socialised into our gender roles from a very early age when parents start to treat male and female children differently.
We can usually see this from the toys children are given. Boys are given cars, action figures, pretend weapons, whereas girls are given dolls, plastic culinary sets and other household items. Both sets of toys send subtle messages about what a boy is supposed to be like and what a girl is supposed to be like.
In Bangladesh and much of the world, men are taught to be assertive (or aggressive), to withhold emotion, to be rational, and to exhibit leadership qualities. Women are taught to be caregivers, to be passive and well groomed for domestic responsibility, and are praised for their appearances over their intellect. These gender roles are inscribed in both poor families and rich ones.
These stereotypes are incredibly harmful, limiting people’s ability to experience their full selves. Both men and women both struggle to find who they really are as they try to fit into these predetermined gender boundaries.
Is climate change a gendered affair?
It gets worse. When it comes to cyclones, which are predicted to become more intense as climate change worsens, gender norms can also mean the difference between life and death for many women.
While the overall number of deaths during cyclones in Bangladesh has gone down over the last few decades, the number of female victims is still drastically higher than male victims. This is isn’t because women are biologically more prone to disaster, but due to understandings of gender that make them more vulnerable.
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How climate change impacts gender roles in Bangladesh Tasfia Tasnim
For instance, particularly in rural communities, women are responsible for the domestic sphere. So when a cyclone strikes, many women feel as if it is their duty to stay at home and protect the house; even as the rest of their family heads for the cyclone shelter.
Nur Mia from Majherchar, Pirojpur explained: “Our family had eleven cows. During cyclone Sidr in 2007, we all hurried to go to the cyclone shelter. But my wife wanted to release the cows first so they could escape too. While she was freeing them, the water started to rise. She couldn’t escape and died during Sidr.”
Similarly, Bengali women traditionally wear saris and are required by culture to at least wear ornas. During a cyclone it is very hard to escape to a shelter wearing a sari and many women unfortunately get caught in the brambles; the same risk exists for women who wear ornas or who have long hair.
Finally, given that social life in parts of Bangladesh tend to be very segregated by gender, many a time women do not want to stay in the cyclone shelter because most of the shelters were not designed with separate male and female facilities.
These cultural norms explain why consistently more women die during cyclones than men.
The times they are changing
Undoubtedly, cultural norms around gender in Bangladesh are undergoing significant changes as the country develops and the economy grows. The emergence of the garments industry over the last couple of decades has drastically reshaped many poor women’s participation in the workforce, for better or worse. Those women living in dormitories of Dhaka, while working in the factories, have a new-found mobility they did not have before.
With gender equality a key priority area for the development sector in Bangladesh, the multitude of gender initiatives have also successful given women across the country agency and access to resources they would otherwise not have (although, sadly at times with the cost of violent repercussions from men, who feel their power is reduced).
A whole new world
One of the most powerful tools we have to reduce climate vulnerability in Bangladesh is to transform gender norms. Research has shown that the more agency women are given, the more climate resilient a household becomes for the very reason that women are often responsible for the household.
Various NGOs are providing training to vulnerable women on how to wear a sari in such a way that they can swim during floods; how to maintain their long hair or ornas so they don’t get stuck in the brambles during the storm surge after a cyclone hits. Prioritising these kinds of initiatives can help women become more resilient to climate change.
At a deeper level, the quality education for women, especially young and adolescent girls, is crucial to initiate a more cultural transformation.
If women are given agency and access to resources, and can work on equal terms with men, Bangladesh can become a more climate resilient country.
Tasfia Tasnim and Shababa Haque work at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at IUB. Tasnim focuses on natural resource management and ecosystem-based adaptation connected to socio-cultural dynamics. Shababa specialises in pollution management and the Sustainable Development Goals