|Women working on a fish farm in Bangladesh / Paul Thompson|
Interview with activists working in Bangladesh
As the world prepares for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21 in Paris at the end of the year, where it is hoped that a legally binding agreement on Climate Change may be reached, it is important to remember that, while all of us will be affected by future change, some of the world’s poorest and marginalised communities are often already affected.
While some Pacific islands are looking at relocating their entire population and culture, some have fewer options, such as Bangladesh.
With 57 trans-boundary rivers flowing through their land to the sea, Bangladesh also has a large, low lying coastal region, susceptible to not only rising seas, but extreme events, such increasing storms and monsoons. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that 27 million Bangladeshis were at risk from a sea level rise by 2050 and a net 15% increase in poverty by 2030.
The report says that the country lost 5.9% of GDP due to storms between 1998 and 2009.
There hasn’t been much work on gender and climate change, but in Bangladesh it’s not an abstract concept for academia, but one of the ways of building capacity and resilience into their planning.
Dilruba Haider, the Co-ordinator on Gender and Climate Change for UN Women in Bangladesh spoke to New Europe about what they had learned.
“What we are doing basically has two outcomes,” Haider said, “One is policy advocacy through which we are trying to influence the government and other actors including the UN to integrate gender equality prospective into their climate change policies and strategies. The other is to provide direct support to the climate vulnerable women in the form of livelihood support.”
Haider explains that they wish to empower women by supporting economic independence – so they are not dependent on a husband or male relatives, political independence – the right to be involved in decision making at the hyper local to national level and mobility, the right to travel.
Stating that nobody knows how many people live on the coastal plains, at high risk of climate change, Haider says there’s more to the problem. “Flooding is one consequence – one of the impacts of climate change. Increased frequency of disaster is the result of climate change. But there are also other problems as a result of climate change like health hazards.
“When there is extreme cold especially up in the north of the country it is usually elderly and people with nutrition deficiency who suffer more. We all know that the nutrition level of women is much lower than their male counterparts. So the new mothers, pregnant women and young girls suffer the most together with the elderly.”
There are already problems from higher salinity, as women showed a group of visiting parliamentarians, “They had rashes because of extensive use of saline water because women are doing all the chores – washing, cleaning and cooking – so women are exposed, including productive tract infection and urinary tract infection because of using saline water to clean themselves.”
She gives an example, of migration from the over-salinated areas, “It’s usually the males who are going to the city for a couple of months to work in some nearby towns. During these 6-9 months or year, the women are left in the village and struggling to survive. The men are not always able to send the money back each month but the women somehow manage. We are thinking how to increase their capacity to earn more might be to increase their skill level.”
There’s also the problem of food production. “food production is hampered. When there is a problem with the availability of food, the men eat first. So climate change is affecting women in various ways. But in the climate change discourse women’s issues are not being addressed.”
Haider elaborates, “But because no one is conscious about it or aware of it, all the discussions are about drought-tolerant rice varieties – issues women have no control over.”
That’s half the affected population out of the debate and, more importantly, excluded from offering advice and potential solutions. Haider has a message for politicians everywhere, “Please address the gender equality concerns in the climate change discussions and negotiations.”
She continues, “If you think about it this sounds and looks and feels so obvious that you shouldn’t, and you can’t talk about, climate change adaptation without supporting a population that is suffering and will be suffering as a result of climate change – you can’t do that by keeping half the population outside of their purview. If we don’t take this into account, we will never be able to come up with a holistic approach to adaptation.”
Noting that “Bangladesh has hundreds and thousands of NGOs,” many are using credit programmes, UN Women are using grants instead. “If there is a women doing rice trading, we buy the paddy for her and she processes it and with the money she earns she again buys the paddy. These kinds of things like fishnet making or poultry or tailoring these have been going on for 20-30 years now.”
But Haider asks, “Is it empowering? Money doesn’t give you power. Money brings you some wellness. You have some money so you are not starving and you can send your kid to school, but is it empowering?” She adds that this is a question they are studying.
There is one resource available; the people. “Bangladeshi people are the epitome of resilience. Each time I go to the field I really feel humbled. I have never been in a disaster. I am from a middle-class family. I have enjoyed gender equality in my home and work. But when I go to the field and see these women who have nothing and they are oppressed and still they are fighting back and standing there and educating their child and trying to better their life. My words fail me. The poor people have tremendous power to move ahead and make their life better. They fight everyday to make their life better.”
Haider concludes, “If anything, it’s the people power that is moving the country forward.”