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Invisible people

  • Published at 07:40 pm March 7th, 2018
  • Last updated at 07:51 pm March 7th, 2018
Invisible people
These broken bits of bricks are all that is left of a ‘kolpar’ in Shahporir Deep - a tube-well that belonged to a family that lived next to it. The daughter filled the pitcher with water, the sons took showers, the neighbour shared her joy of buying a new sharee in between washing her pots - life went on centred around that tube-well. The sea, now almost touching the tube-well base now, used to be almost three miles away even a few years ago. The fate of this family from Teknaf is not unique. They have faded into invisibility with the many others who are gradually being displaced by rising sea levels, due to climate change along the southern coast of Bangladesh. Who is most at risk and how they are able to cope with climate hazards varies by location, income level, age, as well as gender- the social construct or the relationship between women and men. Women as a group are poorer and less powerful than men in many contexts, including that of climate vulnerability. By virtue of their social location as managers of the domestic environment, women are usually the first to notice the subtle and slowly apparent changes in the ordinary environment and are arguably more environmentally conscious than men. On the other hand, the overestimation of men’s perceived roles and cultural patterns, established divisions of labour in society and traditional expectations of men to be in decision-making roles can actually increase their exposure to risks as well. These are just a few examples of the variations in exposure and sensitivity between women and men, and they illustrate how the impacts of climate extremes are likely to be gendered.

Forced migration by men are doubling the burden of women

In another location in Gabura - a village in southwest Khulna, some families have moved away from the coast to new neighbourhoods. In many cases, the earning male of the family had to migrate alone to cities to seek livelihood opportunities and support the family. Agriculture used to be the main source of employment here, and agricultural firms used to employ up to 300 people in a single farm for paddy cultivation. However, increased salinity in the area have encouraged these firms to invest in shrimp hatcheries on what used to be paddy fields, and they employ only a handful of people. There are limited choices of livelihood for the men to earn and remain with the family. This has led to a changed role for women. It is up to the mother or the elderly mother-in-law to manage everyday household needs and survive on the limited earnings being sent from the city -yet they are not recognised as female-headed households. The decision-making power remains with the absentee male member of the family, who often cannot earn enough to support a family in two locations. Women, apart from their traditional role of caring for the family, are burdened with the additional role of managing the family or supplementing earnings without the actual power to make decisions. To supplement earnings, women are engaging in work that used to be traditionally seen as 'a man's job', for example, working as day labourers to make embankments. The biological physical difference from men is used as an excuse to pay less to the women. Also, there are limited livelihood opportunities for them. Many of the women in Khulna in their struggle to survive, have taken up laborious shrimp larvae collection to supplement family earnings.

Girls are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change impacts

This is not the only gendered implication that has been wrought due to climate change in southern Bangladesh. Adolescent girls are in double jeopardy on two counts - because they are female and because they are young. Research evidence that links gender and climate change emphasizes that women and girls are typically marginalized from decision-making, are often (although not always) at greater risk of dying in disasters, and are discriminated against in post-disaster recovery and reconstruction efforts. Many families feel insecure having young girls in a house without a male head in a patriarchal society. Coupled with the struggle of continuing school and completing household chores alongside, without being able to afford extra tuition for English and Math – this social insecurity and poor performance at school put girls at risk of an early marriage, according to a study done by the Population Council Bangladesh. Plan International’s study indicated girls are often married off after natural disasters out of food insecurity. Similar recent studies indicate possible links to the high rates of child marriage to the extreme environmental vulnerability of southern Bangladesh.

When caring for the family is challenging for women in the city

Such vulnerability is not only evident in rural Bangladesh. Rupshachor railway colony, an informal settlement in Khulna city, experienced an influx of migrated families after Cyclone Sidr. Mahbub belongs to one such family - his family of five moved to a one room ‘house’ in the ‘slum’ after the cyclone. He had to swim for hours to rescue them all after Sidr ripped through their entire village. His wife is now too traumatized to go back to their village home, she would rather weather the hardship of managing a family in poor living conditions - without access to safe water and sanitation, and with limited access to education and health care for her children. Climate displaced families can also be traced to informal settlements in Korail, Kallayanpur and Beribadh in Dhaka. The living conditions in these settlements are extremely challenging to raise families in – the houses made out of corrugated iron sheets without shades of greenery and ventilation in dense settlements expose the residents to the risks of heat-related and water-borne diseases. ICDDR,B was reported to receive as many as 700 patients a day during the summer of 2009 and the trend continued for the following years. When these family members fall ill, it is always up to the women to provide this care work, often at the risk of leaving their paid work. Many families in Korail and Beribadh spoke of taking loans for medical emergencies, especially during dry seasons when there is scarcity of water coupled with heat, making the water at risk of contamination. Rising temperatures are a result of climate change, and its indirect heath and economic impacts will soon be felt much harder in the cities, especially among the urban poor. There have been many discussions around climate change in Bangladesh, but only in terms of numbers – a ‘two-degree C’ temperature rise or ‘about 20 million people’ to be displaced in the coming five years. However, we do not relate them with people – the loss of their family, livelihood and childhood, the psychological trauma they go through, their challenges of living amidst high temperatures without access to water, and the helplessness of caring for infants with diarrhoea. We can no longer speak of women either as heroines or victims, with their capacity to struggle along with their curtailed choices and oppression, as climate vulnerability. Rather, we need to view the marginality of groups of populations through vulnerability-producing power relations. The author is a development practitioner, specializing in gender, climate change and the built environment. She is Assistant Professor at BRAC University and consultant for the World Bank