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Celebrating women as changemakers in water and migration issues

  • Published at 05:57 am April 1st, 2021

Why gender matters

Often times in our society, the contributions of women are neglected. As harsh as the reality is, women are treated as the invisible half, working hard all day and still not getting their proper dues, simply because of the gender roles imposed upon them and men by society. This results in a power imbalance. Most women cannot make their own decisions or have proper access to resources that they work so hard to manage. In the context of climate change, this gap in gender and power imbalance is widened. Even still, women are now steadily taking the lead to fight against climate adversities, leading to successful results.

Women as changemakers in water issues

Gendered division of labour is a major factor that results in various issues related to water, particularly in rural Bangladesh. Since the men are busy earning and providing for the family, the women are expected to fetch water for drinking and other household purposes. 

The challenges women face regarding water are not uncommon. These situations have been made worse in the last three decades in coastal Bangladesh, where because of the constant flood, storm surges and salinity intrusion, freshwater and groundwater have become unsuitable for use. Women have to spend extra time traveling long distances to get water when they already spend long hours collecting water from community water pumps. The case is worse in Satkhira in particular, where some women cannot afford to travel long distances in search of clean water, so they end up simply using the saline water. The sanitation facilities have worsened for women and young girls since they do not have access to proper latrines or other facilities during menstruation or pregnancy, and on the other hand, men often wrongfully block their access to these facilities.

"The case is worse in Satkhira in particular, where some women cannot afford to travel long distances in search of clean water, so they are end up simply using the saline water"

What is interesting is that women at present are not just standing by doing nothing in the face of these adversities. With their resource management skills on-point, they are now slowly leading the way towards proper use of water and sanitation facilities. One such example is in Dacope, Khulna, a highly climate-vulnerable region. The unsuitable water from the ponds and canals here have led to various diseases among the people, and some women here decided to do something about it. They started a project through the “Khona Khatail Mahila Samity” to raise funds for a reverse osmosis plant that would purify the water (Farr & Mallik, 2019). This initiative helped to achieve two goals: it helped to purify the water, thus protecting people from diseases while also saving women from the time-consuming task of fetching water, and it created opportunities for women to earn livelihood as they could now sell the purified water as a commodity. This motivated women in Dacope to become more independent and make decisions themselves.

In terms of sanitation facilities, various women-led organizations have emerged in Bangladesh. One noteworthy organization is the Ashroy Foundation, a non-government organization that provides support to women in the southwest coastal belt in terms of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction that includes providing sanitation facilities (Oxfam, 2020). It is clear from these instances that women in Bangladesh are doing their bit for proper water and sanitation to bring positive changes.

Women as changemakers in migration issues

In the recent Gobeshona Global Conference held in January 2021, women’s migration as an adaptation strategy was discussed. A recent study conducted in 480 households in Khulna and Bagerhat districts was presented in the conference which mentioned that 10% of women migrate with their husbands and only 4% migrate with their families which has a critical impact on them. Climate-induced migration in the southwest coastal belt occurs because irregular rainfall patterns, salinity intrusion and riverbank erosion impact people’s livelihood and quality of life in their place of origin which compel them to move from rural to urban areas or from village to village.

When women’s migration in Bangladesh is discussed, their vulnerabilities are mostly highlighted, including gender-based violence and harassment in their workplace, wage disparity and alienation because of cultural differences. It has also been mentioned that women migrate because it has been decided by their husbands or other members of their family. Contrary to the results obtained from Khulna and Bagerhat, a large number of women migrate from other regions and there are many women who make this decision themselves.

In Bhola, Barisal, for example, riverbank erosion has been destroying the lives and livelihood of many, but most families prefer to stay instead of migrating. Under these circumstances, women and even young girls from this region decided to migrate with their families either with consent from family or by themselves against their families’ wishes (Evertsen, 2015). They have been working in the garments sector and as domestic help in Dhaka while living in Dhaka’s Bhola slum. Despite their vulnerability and the fact that men earn more than them for the same job, women send more of their earnings to their families back home than men do. Their courage inspired other women to migrate as well while the money they sent back home helped their families to adapt to climate change impacts, not to mention that their families became more supportive of their actions. This shows that women have only emerged stronger after every setback and are making changes in their ways by breaking gender stereotypes.

"The Disaster Climate Change Support Unit, an initiative of the Bangladesh Government and Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE), is taking inclusive city-wide sanitation approaches"

Current actions and way forward

The recent Gobeshona Global Conference reflected on taking the momentum of women climate champions in terms of water and migration as it featured various noteworthy steps being taken to be more gender-sensitive. The Climate Change and Gender Action Plan (CCGAP) prepared in 2013 is now being revised to build women’s leadership in the case of water and sanitation while taking necessary steps for maintaining their privacy and dignity in their daily life and also during extreme weather events. The CCGAP is also making strategies to help migrant women adapt to their destination after migration through social inclusion and access to resources, though these are still in the works. Building the relationship of women’s leadership to climate change and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is also in progress. The Disaster Climate Change Support Unit, an initiative of the Bangladesh Government and Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE), is taking inclusive city-wide sanitation approaches.

The people from the southwest coastal belt have their own coping mechanisms to adapt to climate change impacts like pond conservation at individual and community levels, rainwater harvesting at the community level and providing filters and deep tubewells at the institutional level, with freshwater being sold to make women’s lives a bit easier.

To be more inclusive, the Government policies about migration, water and sanitation should be more gender-sensitive. Cooperation of men in these issues is needed through proper understanding of gender roles and needs. Women should be evaluated and given jobs and wages based on their skills, with more opportunities to work in various sectors suitable to them after migration. Proper financing is needed to build the relationship of women to climate change and WASH intersections. The national coordination committee under WASH is to be engaged with different levels of the Government.

Finally, collaboration and communication among the Government agencies, local people, non-government agencies and the local government is important. This is possible through a bottom-up approach, where both men and women will get the chance to share their experiences about water and migration issues, and voice their specific needs for a better understanding of gender issues and how to be inclusive.

Faizah Jaheen Ahmed is working in International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) as Intern, her research interest lies in Loss and Damage, Gender Issues and Waste Management. Can be reached at [email protected]

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