(This article was originally published here)
The options to earn a living in Buddhamari village, where Mahera lives, are limited and full of peril. The Mongla upazilla in the Bagerhat district where the village is located suffers from high salinity which makes fishing, crab farming, collecting, and selling fuel wood from the Sundarbans some of the few livelihood options. Croplands often get inundated with saline water rendering them less productive each day, so farming and vegetable cultivation are no longer viable sources of income.
Married at the age of 14, Mahera had to join her husband in the Sundarbans to make enough for their family. “It’s not easy to wade through the deep mud, and roots of mangrove forest,” she says, showing marks of cuts and bruises on her legs.
In 2013, BRAC, in association with United Nations Women (UN Women), started a project called “Reducing Vulnerability of Women Affected by Climate Change through Livelihood Options.” The project aimed to build women’s resilience against climatic onslaughts by providing livelihood support skills training, disaster preparedness and tree sapling distribution. The entrepreneur in Mahera opted to run a grocery shop in front of her house. Within a year, she managed to accumulate a little profit, took out a small loan with which she expanded her merchandise and moved her shop to the local market. She sells tea, snacks, stationeries, soft drinks, kerosene, petrol, and is adding new goods, to meet the growing demands. Since she leaves for the shop early, her husband leaves for his work late taking care of the household and the children. With the accumulated income she has bought livestock and a tiny shrimp farm. Her husband is happy to see a growing income for the family. Their two sons are going to school and the parents’ eyes are shining with dreams of a happy future.
Mahera’s story is one of an empowered woman who took charge of her life and has been working hard for it on her own terms. Despite being uneducated and unskilled from the most remote corner of the country, grinding under climatic extremes, she has refused to give in to the ravages of climate change.
In climate change adaptation, the most important element is people, meaning men and women. It is important to demystify “people” and “community,” and actually say men and women instead. Otherwise we end up thinking and acting as if climate change is a “men’s problem.” So from the outset we leave out half of the “people” from our planning and actions.
Women and men are affected by disaster and adverse climatic impacts differently — their risks, vulnerabilities, and capacities are different due to the socioeconomic and cultural differences created and nurtured by society. “Prevalent gender inequalities and power differences in the Asia-Pacific region limit women’s abilities to respond and adapt to disasters and climate change impacts” (UN Women’s Asia Pacific Strategy on gender, Climate Change, Disaster Risk Reduction & Recovery). Initiatives without acknowledging this reality are bound to be partial and ineffective. The gender and climate change project of UN Women understood this and focused on a woman’s perspective first when it reached out to them.
The national women’s development policy, the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP), and other key national policies acknowledge the importance of integrating women in DRR and climate change adaptation. However, when we plan to reduce inevitable climatic impacts and account for disaster loss and damage we tend to think of things that have economic value: Embankments, roads, bridges, crops, etc. Women have very little to do with these assets, thus their needs get sidelined. The assessments do not look at informal livelihood loss, where most women’s income actually come from, eg loss of Mahera’s income. The loss of non-paid domestic work, largely the women’s domain, also remain outside the purview of such assessments. It never looks at the loss of utensils or the small kitchen gardens, which are also the women’s domain. These might not have an instant impact on a country’s economy, but the nutritional status of poor families do suffer.
It’s high time we look at the needs, capacities, and opportunities that lie in including women in policies and programmes to ensure a complete response to climate change and disasters. We need to make sure that strong, resourceful, hardworking women like Mahera do not slide back into poverty and undue hardship, because policies and responses failed to take her into consideration.
Written by: Dilruba Haider is the Coordinator, Gender and Climate Change Program for UN Women.
Photo:Women like Mahera have shown that we need to take women’s perspectives into account when tackling climate change.