AN UNEQUAL BURDEN

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Understanding how climate change disproportionately affects women in Bangladesh.


 

Our low-lying delta nation, Bangladesh, while reaping many benefits from its mighty riverways such as fertile farmland, fish farming and nature conservation, is also susceptible to severe impacts of climate change, due to sea-level rise, floods, cyclones and even droughts. In 2022, Bangladesh faced a humanitarian crisis due to extensive monsoon rains and unexpected flooding from India’s northeast. This sudden event submerged significant parts of the Sylhet division, leaving millions stranded. With no prior forecast, residents couldn’t prepare, resulting in severe damages. Approximately 94% of Sunamganj and over 84% of Sylhet districts were affected. Around 500,000 individuals sought refuge in 1606 shelter centres, and the flood wreaked havoc on cropland, livestock, hospitals, schools, water facilities, roads, and infrastructure. Socially vulnerable groups, including women, children, and people with disabilities, were disproportionately impacted. In specific districts, 135,770 houses were damaged, and essential household items were lost, causing widespread displacement and infrastructure destruction across the country.

Bangladesh faces an annual economic loss of around USD 1 billion due to average tropical cyclones. According to the World Bank, by 2050, it is projected that one-third of the agricultural GDP could be lost, leading to 13 million internal climate migrants. With 85% of the underprivileged population living in rural areas, and farming being the source of livelihood for more than 40% of the workforce, climate shocks are a major risk for the poor and vulnerable, especially women. Only 36.3% of women engage in the formal economy. They represent 38.5% of the total workforce, with 50% being engaged in agriculture and only 13% owning agricultural land.

During monsoons when rivers overflow or when cyclones and typhoons strike, these rural women, who rarely have any formal education, do not have the option of switching to other forms of work. Their only source of income is non-existent for an unforeseeable amount of time, and they become completely dependent on the men of the family to bring in livelihood. In cases where men move to urban areas in search of work, women are left behind with uncertainty and a lack of safety. They are discouraged from migrating with their husbands or male family members to look after whatever remains of their houses and lands, and also often due to societal and religious pressure. A recent study by UN Women shows that men were unable or unwilling to send whatever meagre livelihood they earned and the women were left to fend for themselves. Cyclone shelters do not address the specific needs of women, and due to lack of privacy, women are not comfortable using the shelters. They feel threatened as they can get exposed to gender-based violence. Due to the social construct, women are massively and disproportionately sufferers, with poverty, limited education, and restricted decision-making exacerbating their vulnerability to harm.

As women are typically responsible for household chores in both rural and urban areas despite their profession, rural women are burdened with the body-wrecking task of collecting safe drinking water from accessible points. Additionally, more time is needed to work at home such as cleaning and managing cooking in disastrous waterlogged areas. They do not even get proper places to rest as their homes get wrecked by strong winds or heavy rains. They are highly susceptible to waterborne diseases such as dysentery, diarrhoea and skin infections due to consumption of saline water. Lack of food often causes malnutrition among women, and they do not get immediate medical treatment either. Their health is worsened due to the lack of women’s hygiene products, along with their limited knowledge of sex education. The continual pressure of dealing with the repercussions of climate change also adversely affects the mental health of women. Women who have encountered climate-related disasters often experience anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. According to a study conducted by the World Health Organization in 2020, women in Bangladesh are twice as prone to depression following climate-related disasters compared to men.


With 85% of the underprivileged population living in rural areas, and farming being the source of livelihood for more than 40% of the workforce, climate shocks are a major risk for the poor and vulnerable, especially women.


Increased need for home-based work and rising poverty in flood-prone areas disproportionately lead to girls dropping out of school, jeopardizing their prospects for a secure future. According to a UNICEF study, girls in regions affected by natural disasters are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys, hindering their earning potential and resilience. Economic hardships often compel families to send daughters to urban areas for work or marry them off early, exacerbating child marriage rates in South-Western districts of Bangladesh. This perpetuates a cycle of violence against women, with over half experiencing violence in their lifetime, and 45.2% of women aged 15–19 being married early. The lack of financial security, coupled with limited opportunities in impacted areas, makes women vulnerable to exploitation, including forced involvement in sex work. The societal norms in Bangladesh further restrict these women’s control over their fate, creating a grim reality for their future.

Elderly women are also severely threatened by climate shocks, as they are unable to work, and cannot migrate. They may lose family members to natural disasters or may be left by themselves when the remaining members of the family migrate. Without necessary care, they lose their lives in dire conditions. Many elderly have to take up work as household help at insufficient wage rates regardless of their age and health, as they have to provide for themselves and their families and also pay for the repair of destroyed homes.

The Sundarbans region is prone to frequent cyclones and has at least 1 member in over 50% of the area’s households who have migrated out of the region in search of a more stable life. Around 86% migrate internally and 14% migrate abroad. Most of the internal migrants work in informal sectors such as brick kilns or construction and are exploited with payment below minimum wage and no job security or healthcare. It is much more difficult for women to get hired in such sectors and hence, much easier to get exploited too. Flooding and unpredictable urbanisation are forcing millions to migrate, with up to 50% of urban slum residents being climate refugees.


Increased need for home-based work and rising poverty in flood-prone areas disproportionately lead to girls dropping out of school, jeoperdizing their prospects for a secure future.


Natore in the North leaves its residents with absolutely nothing to see themselves through cold droughts. Women do not get decent shelter or sanitation in urban slums. They have to share a small space, usually just one room with the rest of the family members, and have to share a public bathroom with more than a hundred slum residents. Their day begins at dawn when they have to wait in queue for bathroom facilities, wait for their turn to cook at an area where gas is provided, and collect water from shared water taps, while also working for eight hours at a garment factory or a private residence. Slums are also unsafe areas where young women and children are attacked by local gangs without any repercussions. In most cases, these crimes go unreported for fear of judgment from society. Inevitably, female migrants have to put up with physical and mental trauma, with little or no hope of recovery, due to our poor system. 

Despite facing challenges that seem unpassable, Bangladeshi women have and continue to show great resilience by fighting and adapting to survive. The Government of Bangladesh, along with initiatives from the private sector, are advancing towards reducing the gender gap, by micro-financing women from underprivileged families willing to run small and medium enterprises. There has been significant work done in remote ‘char’ areas that are highly vulnerable to floods. However, we have a long way to go before we can see substantial changes. In this case, we are addressing a much bigger issue, that includes economic and social improvement for women, along with tackling climate challenges. For example, every area, even the most remote ones, should have facilities for women’s menstrual health, in case of emergencies. Women should be provided basic training to fend for themselves, and relevant sex education should be incorporated into the school curricula of rural areas. The government should work towards protecting informal workers, and also ensure that women workers are not being exploited. There should be stronger monitoring in rural areas to stop child marriages. While we have strong laws against molestation, the implementation of the very laws will ensure that girls in slums are not victims of gender-based violence. Elderly women should be provided with proper shelters so that they are not caught in natural disasters to begin with. While the root of the challenges that women are facing are due to natural disasters, we must realise that the consequences are a result of our societal norms.

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