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Impacts of cyclones on women and girls and the way forward

  • Published at 01:49 pm July 10th, 2021
climate change

How much women are actually impacted and what can be done to improve the situation

In Bangladesh, the negative impacts of climate change are mainly experienced by women and girls residing in the disaster-prone areas of haors (flood-prone) and coastal areas (cyclone and tidal surge prevalent). The intergenerational cycle of imposing patriarchal-rigid gender norms, limited financial independence, finite access to decision-making opportunities, and limited economic empowerment pathways are some of the barriers that make women and girls vulnerable. 

The cyclones and consequent tidal surge such as Mora, Sidr, Alia, Amphan, etc exhibit a higher degree of commonality when it comes to the detrimental impacts on the lives of women and girls. During these uncertain times, the burden of unpaid care work on women and girls escalates. Unpaid care work involves cooking, cleaning, childcare, elderly care, fuel and water collection, etc. 

All these household chores multiply for women and girls, during disasters and leave less or no time for their leisure. This undermines their capacity to harness inner creativity and implement them. Usually, food insecurity is exacerbated due to women’s prioritization in feeding their family members (son, daughters, husbands, etc) before themselves during food shortages. Hence, it leads to malnutrition and reduced energy levels in women. 

In cyclone and disaster-prone areas of Bangladesh, women and girls are constantly impacted by gender-based violence. For instance, if women are late to serve meals, they suffer serious verbal and physical abuse from their husbands. They are also the inevitable victims of domestic violence. 

Similarly, male-out migration is another issue that undermines women’s autonomy and their ability to take financial decisions without the commands of men. Then, women tend to borrow money at a higher interest rate, raising their debt burden and pushing them towards poverty. Therefore, women are forced to seek jobs outside without their male counterpart's presence; and are exposed to gender-based violence (such as, physical, verbal, and sexual harassment) by their new employers and co-workers. 

The most perceivable and dreadful impact of cyclones is when women and girls are evacuated to cyclone shelters. These shelters are usually overcrowded, with inadequate personal space, privacy, separate toilets, and menstrual facilities. Moreover, the relentless social taboos around menstruation and the female body worsens the opportunity to access sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). 

It is crucial to acknowledge that cyclone-prone areas lack access to services like contraception, safe abortion care, safe water during pregnancy and childbirth and proper sanitation. In addition to this, the overcrowded shelters increase the chances of women becoming victims of theft, harassment, rape, and physical, sexual, and emotional violence. 

In Bangladesh, child marriage rates show an upsurge during cyclones due to economic insecurity and school closures. Unfortunately, marriage is seen as a financial transaction and dowry payments as means of capital accumulation. Surprisingly, dowries are affordable and less costly for a girl child during floods and cyclones. 

These shelters are usually overcrowded, with inadequate personal space, privacy, separate toilets, and menstrual facilities

This encourages poor families to arrange marriages fast without taking any consent from girls. Thus, the unfair burden of unpaid care work, gender-based violence, male-out migration, non-gender-responsive infrastructure and child marriage hampers women and girl’s mental health and well-being. The upshot is constant fear, panic, post-traumatic stress disorder, profound melancholy, nightmares, loss of self-worth and happiness, etc. 

However, women residing in coastal areas are better equipped to overcome these daily barriers to disaster response and preparedness. In 10 of the most climate-vulnerable districts of Bangladesh, more than 19,100 women have built better support mechanisms to cope with the ongoing effects and aftermath of cyclones (UNWomen, 2015). 

While 1,600 women were successful in expanding their local business after receiving livelihood skills training. Most importantly, it was a common scenario to witness community-based women’s organizations and local women leaders conducting locally-led adaptation by managing the dual crisis of Amphan and COVID-19. An example of this is Bindu, a Satkhira-based local women development organisation that extends emergency response services, and free food relief packages to coastal vulnerable communities, particularly women and young girls. 

The organization also mobilized its resources strategically by a model called “The Wall of Humanity”, where it encourages community members to leave their surpluses for the vulnerable people affected during cyclones or disasters. Another community-based women’s organization, Prerona works with vulnerable women by strengthening their livelihood opportunities and raising awareness for disasters’ early warning systems. Inspiringly, the Prerona team aided to evacuate 150 people during Amphan. 

Women and girls are active local agents of change for climate change adaptation and mitigation. Their local and traditional knowledge, management skills, empathetic nature, boldness, leadership roles make them empowering actors during cyclones or disasters. 

Women and girls are active local agents of change for climate change adaptation and mitigation

Nonetheless, to eliminate the adverse impacts of climate change on women and girls, ‘boys and men’ have to step up and show solidarity. They can begin this journey if the nation’s education systems capacitate them well enough by disseminating information in easily understandable local languages. The content can range from the perks of sharing the burden of care work at homes; dismantling rigid gender norms; spreading awareness about boycotting rape culture/sexual harassment/gender-based violence. 

It is vital to establish gender-responsive cyclone shelters which comprise facilities that protect SRHR and uplift women’s agency, not undermine it. Mental health and well-being support be part of cyclone shelters to curtail PTSD, trauma, self-isolation for women. 

Adequate and regular monitoring, evaluation and reporting provisions will facilitate the successful operation of these shelters. Additionally, enhanced collaboration between the climate change, health, and women’s rights advocacy communities can be influential for bolstering SRHR. Community-based women’s organizations like Prerona and Bindu can be beneficial for mobilizing resources for this.

At the upcoming COP26, new mandates could be established, which will involve multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral stakeholders to strengthen the roles of women in decision-making processes; and halting gender-based violence during climate change calamities and make them locally-led adaptation leaders. Gender-responsive climate action can only be achieved by creating significant political empowerment opportunities for women residing in coastal areas. 

Hence, forming coalitions can be crucial. The coalition can be comprised of diverse stakeholders (such as civil societies, local and national governments, academicians, researchers, private sector, citizens, etc) who can facilitate capacity building opportunities, draw climate finance, leverage climate policies and above all form connections between individuals to make real differences in the lives of vulnerable women and girls. 

The National Adaptation process can be an important policy document to incorporate all of these mechanisms for women and girls to make Bangladesh more resilient towards climate change. This can all start now and we can pave the pathway to #BuildBackBetter for nature and vulnerable women.

Afsara Binte Mirza is working in the International Centre for Climate Change and Development(ICCCAD) as a Junior Research Officer. Her research interest lies in climate justice and gender equality. Afsara can be reached at [email protected] 

Adeeba Nuraina Risha is working in the International Centre for Climate Change and Development as a Research Officer. Adeeba can be reached at [email protected] 

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