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Turning vulnerability into strength

  • Published at 06:08 pm February 25th, 2019
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Mahmud Hossain Opu

Women in the southern Bangladesh respond to climate change-induced livelihood challenges

Climate change is one of the most urgent issues of our time. It is already impacting the populations and ecosystems around the globe, threatening to set back development efforts by decades. 

But the impacts of climate change are not being felt equally in terms of gender. Those with the fewest resources will be most susceptible to its negative effects, particularly women. In many parts of the world, women still face unequal access to formal financial systems, land ownership, decision-making, reproductive health care, education and information, undermining their wellbeing and subsequently, that of their families and communities. 

The lack of attention paid to power and socio-political relations can result in the reconstitution of gender inequality and greater vulnerability of women in the wake of many climate-induced disasters. 

Data shows that women and children are fourteen times more likely to die than a man during a natural disaster. In the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh which killed approximately 140,000 people, the mortality rate of women over 40 was 31 percent. More than 70 percent of the dead from the 2004 Asian tsunami were women. 

Women and men perceive and experience climate change differently. Women are typically more vulnerable due to their dependence on natural resources and structural inequalities in their access to economic resources, as well as social and religious stereotypes. 

A common example includes the culturally dominant position of women within the home: unable to participate in public conversations, women are often kept from receiving emergency warning information. In particular, women in hill tribes and secluded coastal environments are more vulnerable due to their marginalized position and maltreatment by the mainstream community.  

Bangladesh is recognized as one of the worst-affected countries in the world due to climate-induced disasters. The geographical setting along with low and flat topography renders the country physically vulnerable to climate change. The southern region has been repeatedly identified and declared as an extremely vulnerable area. 

Women are supporting their families through crafts.
Photo: Rahul Jain

In the southern belt, coastal livelihoods are directly related to natural resources, which can be easily disturbed by natural disasters. Impacts in these areas include scarcity of pure drinking water, malnutrition, extreme poverty, health problems, as well as losses and damage in crop cultivation, fisheries, poultry, and vegetable garden. 

Climatic disasters have also created mass unemployment among the people of Southern communities in Bangladesh. These dynamics as well impact women differently than men: an estimation shows that, 87 percent of unmarried women and 100 percent of married women lost their livelihood when Cyclone Nargis hit the Ayeyarwaddy Delta in Myanmar in 2008. 

The affected people are forced to take on different livelihoods to cope with the hostile impact of climate change-related disasters. In this situation, most of the men migrate to other places in search of alternative livelihoods. The women left behind receive additional pressure, as they become primarily responsible to take care of the other family members of their family in the absence of male family members. 

Women are not only the passive victims of climate change but also proactive agents of change for adaptation to and mitigation of abrupt climate Change. In search of alternative livelihoods, many women take memberships in social safety net programs supported by youth clubs or committees and also participate in innovative livelihoods programs initiated by the government or other organizations. 

Families are now making mats and other handicrafts to maintain their livelihoods as well as beginning to rear livestock. The southern women are also now trying to cultivate extreme weather suitable and salinity tolerant crops with the help of the local NGOs and INGOs. 

Given that water is an acute problem in this part of the country, the local people have also developed a system with the help of NGOs and INGOs to store rainwater as well as groundwater. 

Moreover, affected people are also harvesting rainwater. Aside from these alternative strategies, the affected women try to increase their knowledge of climate change, it's after effects and associated risks, as in the rural areas, climate change knowledge is mostly dominated by men.  

Women are beginning to take part in the early warning systems in the southern part of the country. Families are now making mats and other handicrafts to maintain their livelihoods. Apart From that many families are rearing livestock. 

Women are sometimes seen only as victims of climate change and natural disasters, when in fact they are well positioned to be agents of change through mitigation, management and adaptive activities in their households, workplaces, communities and countries. 

They can be effective leaders within their communities when it comes to addressing the harmful effects of climate change. Where women can help devise early warning systems and reconstruction efforts, communities may fare better when natural disasters hit. 

Women’s innovations have been heralded in sectors such as water, energy and reforestation - all of which are climate change issues. Their efforts must be incorporated into climate change policies from the outset and promoted through capacity building. 

Adiba Bintey Kamal is a masters student of disaster and human security management at Bangladesh University of Professionals. Currently working with ICCCAD as a youth participant from the Youth Mentorship Program.