40% of the southern part of the Kurigram had been devoured by the river over the last decade
“Please give us work, so that we can cope with floods ourselves instead of asking for help from you every year”, “Can’t marry off my daughter; she isn’t 18 yet, although I am worrying how to feed my family tomorrow”, these were some of the utterances of the women, in front of a high-level mission led by the United Nations Resident Coordinator on October 18, 2020.
The women from Chilmari Upazila of Kurigram District, wearing shabby, torn clothes, with eyes filled with fear of complete uncertainty, battered four times with monsoon flood on top of Covid-19, were talking to the mission members at a courtyard meeting.
The monsoon floods this year affected 21 districts of Bangladesh, affecting 3.3 million people including 1,701,930 were women and girls and 84,195 “female-headed households,” according to data by ReliefWeb. These women are the most vulnerable group to food insecurity, gender-based violence, and inaccessibility to essential services.
Kurigram is a district that is flooded every year to varying degrees. The Union Parishad chairman of Raniganj Union of Chilmari Upazila said 40% of the southern part of the District had been devoured by the river over the last decade and most of those homeless people are living on embankments, or with their neighbours, or have rented tiny piece of land to erect some sort of makeshift shelter.
Many families in the southern part of Raniganj were still living on embankments. Most of the families said that they had to take shelter in the open on embankments and high roads during the flood, as there were limited spaces in flood shelters or they were located too far away within the Union. Women spoke of sleepless nights trying to protect their adolescent girls from potential perpetrators, under the open sky.
Most of the latrines were washed out or crumbled, which makes the protection aspects of women and girls even more precarious. Although the women claimed that there were no known cases of violence against women during the flood in their locality, they all agreed that Covid had significantly increased the incidents of domestic violence, which they thought was ‘only natural.’
“My children ask for food to me and I ask my husband to bring food. He gets mad and I face verbal abuse,” said one woman, tearfully adding “I couldn’t give my children a single good meal for the last two months.”
Family members who were working in cities and towns have come back home; there’s no work at the village. Bebi Khatun’s husband was working in a garment’s factory in Tongi who lost his job at the beginning of the Covid crisis and is now sitting jobless at home.
Bebi also used to have an income from tutoring madrasa children. But that’s now gone too. Schools are closed, and parents don’t have money to provide private tuition.
There’s no work in the field during the Bengali months of ‘Ashwin’/‘Kartik’. Vegetable gardens are all gone, food price has skyrocketed as another cruel blow to these impoverished communities.
Some of the women borrowed money from money lenders on exorbitant interest rate; Tk150 for Tk1000 per month! Others sold their assets: everything from trees, cows, calves, goats, big pans to boiled paddy.
The poorest women we talked to didn’t have jewellery to sell. Sumitri Rani, the widow, makes earthen flowers for idol worship and sells those, which hasn’t been bringing her enough income this year as Covid and flood have shattered the local economy.
She has two adolescent girls and she is in constant anxiety about their future. Shahzadi Begum used to grow gourds and pumpkins on sacks of soil as she doesn’t have any land; the flood destroyed it all.
Shorifon Begum, the sharecropper did vegetable in two kathas of land which has all been gone in flood. Anju, an abandoned woman, used to live on soil digging work. Since the Covid outbreak and the recent flood, she has had no work for months and is struggling to survive with her two sons.
UN Women provided cash grants to support these flood and Covid affected women, which they used for buying foods, medical treatment of their family members, buying small goats, poultry, ducks. During the repeated floods many of those poultry and ducks were lost.
The government gave Tk2500 cash as Covid relief and 10kg rice to the flood-affected families. Not many got these supports though. When asked about the priority needs, the ill-fed, utterly distressed women said what would benefit them really is food for two months to see them through the period of ‘no work’ and work opportunity. They didn’t ask for cows as there is a real crisis of fodder. Straw is sold at Tk1500 for 100 bundles, which they simply can’t afford.
The UP chairman and members, who are in the Union Disaster Management Committee, sounded helpless. They do not have any contingency plan or funding with which they could support the affected people; they only wait for the central government to allocate resources for that.
Following are some recommendations for the recovery of the flood crisis in a gender-responsive manner:
The views expressed in this article are that of the author’s.
Dilruba Haider is working as a Programme Specialist on Disaster Risk Reduction, Climate Change, and Humanitarian Actions, with the UN Women Bangladesh Country Office.