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The unique vulnerability indigenous women

  • Published at 07:39 pm March 10th, 2019
Photos : Mehedi Hasan

Understanding the brunt impact of climate change on the women of hill areas in Bangladesh

From the impact by natural disasters to the everyday struggles of womenfolk, we cannot ignore the severity of climate change on them. As per the study by Asaduzzaman (2015), in the Cyclone Gorky in 1991, among 140,000 deaths, women outnumbered men by approximately 93 % (14:1 in ratio). 

However, in developing countries like Bangladesh, where the majority of the women are dependent on the natural resources for their existence and livelihood, the effects are even more visible in a multi dimensional way.

Climate change has been taking the heaviest toll on the vulnerable and the poor people and this impact is exacerbated when the affected person is a female. According to WHO (2002), globally, a total of 1.3 billion people in low and middle‐income countries live below the poverty line, 70 % of whom are female. 

It is widely recognized that women are responsible for 70 % of the world’s work, yet they are disproportionately more vulnerable to climate change than men. IPCC (2007) has also recognized the fact that women are one of the most vulnerable groups to climate change impacts. 

In Bangladesh, women constitute almost half of the total population. According to CPD, a think–tank in Bangladesh females are significantly more vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, especially due to patriarchal norms. However, their vulnerability also keeps rising due to their socially constructed roles and responsibilities, and their marginal position in the social system. 

In Bangladesh, there are 54 indigenous groups which account for approximately five million native people. Approximately 80 % of the indigenous population lives in the flatland districts while the rest reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. 

They face violence and discrimination in many facets of their lives, including attacks on their physical safety (especially indigenous women), disregard for their ownership and cultural connection to land and resources and barriers to equal access to healthcare and safe employment, political participation, and education. 

“In Bangladesh, women are disadvantaged compared to men. Indigenous women are further marginalized than Bengali women, thus making indigenous women the most disadvantaged group in the country,” said Rani Yan Yan, Queen of the Chakma Circle. 

However, these ethnic women are also among the first to experience the direct impacts of climate change, even though they contribute little to greenhouse - - gas emissions. They are also directly affected by environmental destruction, which is a leading cause of climate change, such as deforestation or land degradation.

Most importantly, their heavy dependence on natural resources makes them vulnerable to changes in the quality and quantity of natural resources as the the majority of them have a close cultural relationship with the environment.

The indigenous peoples of Asia face additional challenges as they are often discriminated against and live in excluded communities in Asia, noted IFAD (2002).

Often, a higher rate of male migration out of the hills results in women performing most of the agricultural and pastoral work, in addition to their responsibilities for household work and casual labour. 

They find themselves walking greater distances to collect water, fuel, food, and medicinal plants as production schedules are affected by changing climate conditions. This, in turn, increases their workload and chore. 

A tribal woman’s role is intrinsically tied to the collection, storage and management of water and women pay the biggest price when it comes to poor quality and lack of access to water. Any increase in water scarcity means that women and girls must spend more time on this task. And if the water quality worsens, women and girls are the first to be exposed to waterborne diseases. 

According to Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA), a national NGO in Bangladesh working with indigenous people in CHT, “Women in the hilly regions of Bangladesh relentlessly work from very early morning to  6 o’clock in the evening. Their burden of work is getting more complex with time as climate change is deteriorating the environment and posing hardship on their day-to-day life.” 

During extreme events such as droughts and floods, indigenous women and girls face the additional risks of gender-based violence, sexual harassment, trafficking, and rape. At such times, women and girls are also more prone to mortality. In Bangladesh, mortality levels were found to be higher for women above the age of 10 - - three times higher than those of males - - in the 1991 cyclone and flood.

The common reasons for this are that early warning signs are often primarily disseminated in public places, to which many women don’t have easy access. Due to restrictive cultural norms, some women in Bangladesh couldn’t evacuate on time as they were not allowed to leave the house without a male relative, losing precious time that could have saved their lives. 

Due to beliefs that present women as a symbol of self-sacrifice, it is women who typically eat the leftover food when food becomes scarce, compromising their health and nutrition. 

However, indigenous women have played an important role in preserving their cultural heritage, including managing local resources sustainably. They have been producers and providers of food for their communities. They have been “the custodians of bio diversity for many of the world's ecosystems and practitioners of medicine, pharmacology, botany, nutrition, and keepers of agricultural technology.” (International Indigenous Women's communities and personal lives, Forum Declaration, 2005)

Tribal women’s role in forest-based production often determine their social relationship.

These often determine their hierarchical relationship to the forest. However, even though these mountain women have extensive knowledge to adapt to various environmental stresses, they are often left out of key decision-making processes. 

Farah Anzum is an undergraduate student of Environmental Management and Economics from North South University. She has been involved in many development organizations and has worked as a research assistant .