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Overcoming the barriers: Women fighting against climate change

July 22nd, 2014 by Posted in Resilience

Md Abdul Quayyum

World Bank Report says 1.2 billion poor people in the world, living on less than $1 per day and they are having their poverty compounded by climate change. Women make up the majority of the world’s poor and climate change is having a disproportionately large impact on their livelihoods and security.

 When natural disasters strike especially in developing countries, poor communities are the first to face the havoc of the disasters and since women make up an estimated 70 percent of those living below the poverty line, they are most likely to bear the heaviest burdens.

 In their ‘Gender and Climate Change’ report, IUCN– International Union for Conservation of Nature claimed that women are more severely affected by climate change and natural disasters because of their social roles and because of discrimination and poverty.

Additionally, women are responsible for the majority of food production in many developing countries, despite typically having restricted access to markets, land and credit. This lack of access means they face a double whammy: they are more dependent on the natural resources, that are under threat from climate change, but they are limited in what they can do to cope.

 A study conducted jointly by the London School of Economics, the University of Essex and the Max-Planck Institute of Economics, analyzing natural disasters between 1981 and 2002 of 141 countries reveals evidences of socially constructed gender specific vulnerability of women built into everyday socio-economic patterns that leads to the relatively higher female disaster mortality rates compared to those of men. For example, the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh killed 138,000 people, many of whom were women and older than 40 years.

 Bangladesh is a country hard hit by climate change and its negative impact is threatening the livelihoods of a large number of people. The increasing trend of disasters places Bangladesh at the top position among vulnerable countries. Flood plains – wedged between battering sea surge, cyclones, coastal erosion and salinization from the Bay of Bengal in the south and Himalayan Glacier Outburst Floods from the north -covers around 80% of the country.

From Vulnerability to Resilience

Roughly half of Bangladesh’s population is made up of women (48.9 percent in 2004, according to the World Bank), 80 percent of whom live in rural areas (BBS 2001). Women bear multiple responsibilities at home and also outside. They also contribute to rural production activities that include raising seedlings, gathering seeds, post harvesting, cow fattening and milking, goat farming, backyard poultry rearing, pisciculture, agriculture, horticulture, food processing, cane and bamboo works, silk reeling, handloom weaving, garment making, fishnet making, coir production and handicrafts.

In relation to climate change, women can be effective agents of change and contribute significantly to adaptation, mitigation and disaster reduction strategies. Their responsibilities in households and communities as guardians of natural resources have prepared them well for livelihood strategies adapted to changing environmental realities. Given their roles in society, women have important knowledge, skills and experiences for shaping the adaptation process and the search for better and safer communities.

Among the major roles and responsibilities performed by women, reproduction and production as well as taking care of children, elderly, the sick, injured and others are greatly challenging roles. Despite the challenges, especially when resources are scarce and food is limited, women are still fulfilling their principal roles, and they have actively shown their concerns and potential talents in doing so.

These talents, capabilities, knowledge, skills and experiences women possess in handling these two main functions can however, if well encouraged and sensitized be translated into actions for climate change adaptation to reduce its impacts and hence strengthen house-holds’ livelihoods.

The Constitution of Bangladesh emphasizes equal rights for all and prohibits discrimination and inequity on the basis of sex. Especially with respect to women, Article 28 states, ‘Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of state and public life”. Therefore, the government is fully committed to ensuring women become part of the solutions to climate change by creating space for them to contribute in all aspects of sustainable development in Bangladesh. The government has already ensured women’s leadership from national assembly-level to grassroots level decision making processes. However despite the excellent initiatives government has taken, there is a long way to go as far as implementation is concerned.

In 2013, realizing the need for coordinated efforts on gender issues and to mainstream gender issues in development initiatives to increase resilience, the government has facilitated preparation of the Bangladesh Climate Change and Gender Action Plan.

While there has been a significant decrease in disaster-related deaths in Bangladesh, but a few studies following the cyclone and flood disasters in 1991 revealed that, among women aged 20-44, the death rate was 71 per 1000, compared to 15 per 1000 for men (UNEP 2005).

Moreover the natural disasters like floods and cyclones damage the economic livelihoods of women like livestock, poultry, fisheries, trees, crops, seeds and animal fodder. Increased salinity after a cyclone and the difficulty in plowing wet soil after flooding decreases soil productivity. Sand deposition as a result of flood and river erosion affects production of crops. As a result, there is a net loss in income, which in turn, leads to a loss in savings, thus making it even harder for households to cope with disasters.

Government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Bangladesh are having different coping strategies and carrying out Resilience programmes, which integrate asset creation activities with community training to build resilience among the rural ultra-poor, especially women, and help communities better manage natural disasters and climate change impacts.

Oxfam, the world-wide development agency, has been implementing one such programme in Bangladesh since 2010 in order to develop community leadership especially of women ensuring access to and control over resources, services and opportunities in changing climate.

The project called “Resilience through Economic Empowerment Climate Adaptation Leadership and Learning-REECALL” is working to build resilient communities through economic empowerment for women and men and develop leadership in disaster prone Northern char, Haor, and Southern Coastal areas in Bangladesh.

Underprivileged women at Galna char, a flood prone area, of the Jamuna River in Phulchhari upazila under Gaibandha district have gained self-reliance through working at a mini garment factory, thanks to the initiative of local organization, SKS Foundation, with support from Oxfam.

Mini Garments

Mini Garments, Photo: Abdul Quayyum/Oxfam

People in the remote char island live very poor life and climate change is making it even worse. In 2010, SKS Foundation arranged training on garments production for 20 poor women and provided financial support to form a cooperative and set up a mini garment factory at Golana.

The factory started producing different clothes for women and children and with the marketing facilities provided by Oxfam. The items have already gained popularity in char areas of Jamapur district and Phulchhari, Saghata and Sadar upazilas of Gaibandha district.

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Now women working at the mini garment factory are earning Tk 150 to 200 each a day, said Rasheda Begum, president of ‘Golna mini garment cooperative’.

Md. Abdul Quayyum is the Media and Communications Coordinator of Oxfam in Bangladesh and can be reached at aquayyum@oxfam.org.uk

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