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Women’s empowerment is vital for climate resilience – but the burden of survival in Bangladesh should not rest on their shoulders alone

  • Published at 12:31 pm February 9th, 2020
Climate Change_February 2020_Women’s empowerment
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As we all know, Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Partly this vulnerability can be attributed to the physical characteristics of the country, such as the flat, low-lying topography and climactic features which render it highly susceptible to floods, droughts, cyclones and earthquakes. However, socioeconomic factors also leave Bangladesh vulnerable in this time of climate emergency. The country has a very high population density, with many living below the poverty line (Pouliotte, Smit and Westerhoff, 2009). Social risks – such as gender inequality, social discrimination, unequal distributions of resources and power at the intra-household level and limited citizenship – have been important factors in pushing and keeping households in poverty. Additionally, the country has suffered a long history of weak political governance, and many livelihoods here rely on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and fishing (Huq and Ayers, 2008).

Gender inequality has also been highlighted as a key barrier to climate resilience. In Bangladesh, unequal power relationships between men and women have resulted in a greater number of women experiencing poverty than men (Kabeer, 2003).The patriarchal system prevalent in mainstream Bengali society perpetuates oppressive gender roles. Alongside having unequal access to resources,women tend to have responsibility for care giving and the provision of food and fuel in the household. These tasks are highly affected by climactic disasters. All of these factors make it more difficult for women to recover from flooding and drought, as they are more reliant on climate sensitive resources than men and thus cannot adapt as easily as men can. Women are also less well represented than men in decision making processes at both national and local levels, so it is hard for them to advocate for changes to this inequality.

However, there has been a pushback in recent years against this ‘men-versus-women dichotomy’ in climate change studies, as some argue that this “feminisation of vulnerability” reinforces a “victimization discourse” (Djoudi et al, 2016: 248). In fact, women are often proactive agents of adaption, and the causes of vulnerability are multifaceted and dependent on political relations beyond gender alone. It is this complexity that the panelists in the ‘Embedding Gender Equality in Climate Action’ session at the 4th CSD conference on 18th October 2019 sought to address.

The first presentation from Dr Anastasia Seferiadis, Dr Oliver Scanlan and PhD scholar Basundhara Tripathy-Furlongaptly demonstrated the intricacy of gender and power, and inaptitude of the simplistic ‘women as climate victims’ discourse, in Bangladesh. Drawing on case-studies of a female centred micro-credit organisation in Jessore, a women’s informal ‘bondhu’ group in Satkhira, and women’s key role in the AchikMithik Samity in Madhupur they showed that women in Bangladesh are amassing and strategically deploying social capital, acquiring habits, skills and capacities to enable them to renegotiate their position, and appropriate elements of various projects in a DIY fashion as best suits them and their situation. However, due to the patriarchal environment of Bangladesh they are unable to dramatically rupture social ties, but instead are incrementally ‘reweaving’ them. The second presentation from Nasrin Siraj, PhD student at the University of Amsterdam, also disrupted the notion of a straightforward male and female divide, as her paper explored ethnic tensions in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in relation to inter-ethnic marriage. Expanding on our understanding of ethnicity within cosmopolitan sociability, this paper reflected on marriage practices (love marriage and arranged marriage) in shared neighbourhoods of Indigenous people and Bengali-muslim migrants. Through examples of inter-ethnic marriages from her ethnographic fieldwork, the presenter demonstrated shifting identities within the hill tracts of indigenous communities and their interaction with the mainstream Bengali population.

The third paper, presented by Ms Sayeda Karim, Research Associate at ULAB, investigates female leaders in Bangladesh and their perception of climate change. Her research discovered that not only do women need to be given leadership opportunities so that their perspectives can be heard and needs met in climate strategies, but also that current leaders need support and opportunities to network so that they can develop an understanding of how climate change is affecting sectors beyond those that they specialise in. Finally, the fourth paper from PinashAkter, Project Officer at OXFAM, and Anushree Ghosh, MSc Student at Hajee Mohammad Danesh Science & Technology University, explored OXFAM’s PROTIC project, a participatory initiative that has trained local women in how to use mobile technology to gain knowledge on climate adaptation strategies. The paper highlighted the role of gender in building climate resilience through the PROTIC project implemented in Dimla, Nilphamari. The main aim was to understand the function of the mobile phone for climate change adaptation led by women farmers.

In the discussion that followed the presentations it was reiterated, as the papers had made clear, that the solipsistic ‘women are climate victims’ rhetoric should be avoided. But it was also raised that there are risks to only emphasizing women’s role as climate agents too. As one discussant Saydia Gulrukh, a journalist with New Age, noted; “We need to interrogate gender as a social construct. In Bangladesh micro-enterprise has sought to empower women with knowledge, but infact women end up burdened with more work and responsibility on top of their rigid domestic roles … so when we talk about women’s role in climate resistance and how women can work towards climate adaption I worry that in the name of inclusion we may burden women with more unpaid work”. In relation to the last paper, another discussant, Dr. Samiya Luthfa, Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology in the University of Dhaka, questioned whether giving women mobile phones with climate adaptation information was enough to break through the societal and cultural barriers in rural areas of Bangladesh. As gender is a binary, it must not be forgotten that we need to redefine masculinity, and engage men in that process, in order to also dismantle fixed notions of femininity.

The WID (Women In Development) approach, which arose in the 1970s within international development, was roundly criticized for utilizing a “just add women and stir” approach (Harding, 1995). Proponents of this school of thought hypothesized that bringing women into capitalist modes of production would increase prosperity all round, but they neglected considering how unequal gender relations had led to women being confined to the domestic sphere in the first place. The GAD (Gender And Development) approach that was formed in response to these critiques instead specifically focuses on the power relations between women and men, rather than on women alone (Plewes and Steurt, 1991:127).

In the debates on climate adaptation in Bangladesh, it will be vital for this critical approach to gender to be applied so as to avoid over burdening women with the work of survival, rather than addressing the power imbalance between men and women, so that communities can become more resilient as a whole.

Basundhara Tripathy Furlong is Visiting Researcher at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh and a PhD Candidate at Wageningen University and Research, Netherlands

Isobel Talks is Visiting Researcher at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh and a PhD Researcher at University of Oxford, UK

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