Enabling women to thrive in the face of climate change
Lara Eckstein

A portrait of Manira Sultana, the passionate and dedicated feminist from amtali

The women of Uttar Tarikata are thrilled when Syeda Manira Sultana enters the village. “Assalaamu Alaikum,” they cheer at their advisor and friend from Nazrul Smriti Sangsad (NSS). The local NGO is implementing a project for Oxfam’s project on Resilience through Economic Empowerment, Climate Change Adaptation, Leadership and Learning (REECALL) in this village since 2011, and each week, Sultana pays a visit to the community.

As Technical Officer of the REECALL project, Sultana, informs women in 10 villages within Amtali Upazila about climate change, and how to build resilience to the risks they are facing as a result of it. Situated at the Southern coast of Barisal Division, Amtali is not only prone to cyclones and saline intrusion; it is also increasingly suffering droughts. Monsoon season has been delayed up to two months in recent years. This June, women in Uttar Tarikata are still waiting for fill-up of their ponds.

Manira Sultana is discussing next activities with women of Uttar Parikata: risk assessments, selection of beneficiaries for input support, and advocating for their rights at he Union Parishad are on the agenda (L). A total of 27 Community-Based Organisations have been formed under the projects. In the meeting, the women of Uttar Parikata talk about their work with NSS, and raise issues of responsibility and justice they expect both from their Union Parishad and from the international community to help them face the impacts of climate change in their village. Photo: Lara Eckstein, Community Member

“These changes especially affect women,” Sultana explains. Women are responsible for fetching water, which they provide it to their children, and use for household activities. Their own safety and health often falls short. “When water sources get scarce, women have no opportunity to wash themselves,” Sultana explains. “This is causing hygiene problems.” Climate change is also causing difficulties for reproductive health. The number of disabled children is growing, and more and more women fail to conceive at all. “Some husbands abandon their wives because of that.” Women also face difficulties due to social norms: Many are taken out of school early, and child marriage is a common phenomenon. The burden of climate change is increasing women’s vulnerability.

At the same time, climate change is a chance to empower women. And Sultana is making sure of this in Amtali. The passionate 35-year-old studied Social Science at Barisal BM College -- just like the journalist and social change maker Nazrul Islam did before his assassination in 1973. Sultana joined the “Nazrul Smriti Sangsad” 12 years ago, following the ideal of working to empower the marginalised and poor. The most pressing issue for her is empowerment of women. “I am a feminist,” she declares.

Sultana is discussing issues of responsibility and justice with women in Uttar Tarikata, “you have to make sure your Union Parishad is holding a Ward Shova to discuss the annual budget with you,” she explains. “This is your right!”

In the neighbouring village Angulkata, Sulatana and her NSS colleagues have excavated a pond to harvest rain water, and installed a wash room. “For women only”, the sign reads, followed by explanations about hygiene and safety issues for the village women. “Thanks to the REECALL project, we have been able to improve the situation of women a lot,” Sultana says, pride in her voice. NSS has provided cattle and ducks to women, and linked communities to the market sector. They successfully lobbied for policies on breast feeding and maternal leave. “Women are now participating in the Standing Committees of their Union Parishad,” Sultana says. “If we can further increase their political and economic participation, this will be helpful for the whole community, including men.”

Sultana’s husband, himself a social worker, is supporting her fight for women’s rights. Given her technical knowledge about climate change, Sultana has a steep career to go for in Bangladesh. First, however, she will retreat from her position as Technical Officer at NSS for six months to enjoy her maternal leave: Manira Sultana is expecting her first child. “My family,” the dedicated feminist declares with her voice turning soft, “That’s the most important thing in my life.” 

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Lara Eckstein

Lara Eckstein is a Masters student at Technical University of Dortmund and a visiting researcher at ICCCAD.