As climate change exacerbates the uncertainties of livelihood opportunities, local NGOs are coming forward to help cope with climate risks by empowering local women in coastal areas
In rural Bangladesh, women have historically been responsible for vital tasks such as securing potable water, firewood and food. Since these responsibilities are almost entirely dependent on the natural environment, southern coastal women are believed to be disproportionately affected by the adverse effects of climate change. In fact, the region is one of the most vulnerable to climate change as well as disaster which includes cyclones, irregular rainfall, excessive temperature, and so on. Among them salinity intrusion being a pressing issue due to the occurrence of frequent cyclones and saline waterlogging. Although the salinity in the area has been steadily rising for the last 20 years due to shrimp farming in agricultural lands and sea-level rise, the condition has worsened after cyclone Aila.
Cyclone Aila hit the southern coastline of Bangladesh hard on May 25, 2009. It was really a unique event as a storm like this had not hit the Sundarbans in the last three decades. As an aftermath of this, the Satkhira and Khulna districts of Bangladesh suffered the heaviest damage. Furthermore, acute scarcity of drinking water and food worsened the sufferings of thousands. While tragic, the recovery from the disaster proved to be an opportunity to build back stronger, safer and more resilient communities in the coastal districts.
The freshwater sources were damaged and all 'ready to export' (grade) shrimp was washed away. To combat the crisis, families came forward to work in order to manage a living, with men and women working together. A woman from Vamia, a village of Burigoalini union, Shyamnagar Upazilla, Satkhira said, “I was not used to working in the field, but Aila broke the social taboo. I and many other women in our village started working to earn money for our family and to survive after Aila, which has not stopped yet.”
They started to contribute to agricultural and other income-generating works to add to the household income. Men migrated to nearby cities to find work and alternative livelihood sources. The men of many families went to work as labourers to brickfields for six months and the women then took over the responsibility of looking after their households - raising children, taking care of the agriculture and farming activities. This triple workload makes women’s daily responsibilities much greater than before.
This gender-based shift in economic opportunities gave women communities the mobility outside home, and with this their income patterns have been slowly changing. However, their income opportunities were still mostly restricted to the domestic periphery. The society or family rarely take note of women’s contribution though they bear the majority of workload in the family. They did not receive recognition for their role in managing the household as well as outside work. Despite working seasonally as day labourers, being actively involved in fishing and agriculture, helping their husbands in ghers, they keep considering themselves as housewives not wholly realizing that they are turning their home, their courtyard and adjacent areas into income-generating opportunities.
As climate change exacerbates the uncertainties of livelihood opportunities, local NGOs are coming forward to help cope with climate risks by empowering local women in coastal areas by training them on diversified livelihood activities, health and sanitation needs and agricultural production.
Through these trainings they have adapted to more efficient homestead vegetation techniques, livestock rearing techniques and fish farming techniques. They have learnt various cultivation processes like tower and bed gardening, tree plantation on embankment (suitable saline tolerant variety), and preparation of organic compost for agricultural works as well as fish farming.
Technical and practical knowledge on several sectors of diverse livelihood have expanded economic opportunities. Moreover, these training opportunities to cope with local challenges have activated them to work in groups and also share the information learned with their neighbours.
Currently, they are accessing YouTube to learn various methods of cultivation and plantation. They are using the homestead vegetables to fulfil the nutritional needs of the family and selling the remaining to the local vendors. They also use the smartphone technology to know the market price of their sellable products as well as the information regarding weather updates.
Such training empowered the previously marginalized women by giving them access and control over agricultural products which increased their bargaining capacity and negotiating power and thus becoming a major driver of advocacy, thereby leading to the struggle to build more resilient self-sufficient communities.
A woman from Kultoli, a village of Munshiganj union, Shyamnagar Upazilla, Satkhira said, “We were not allowed to give any opinion in front of our family members, but now we have learned a lot from training and we are earning more money from our husbands so everyone gives importance to our words.”
Although formal employment is an important modality to address women empowerment, it functions beyond the domestic periphery. However, such small initiatives that are contributing to food security in small localities through empowering women is an example showing how regional efforts can fit into even larger structures to enhance the overall resilience power of the society.
Sumaiya Binte Anwar (Sumaiya Binte Anwar is a Research Officer at ICCCAD working in the Urban Resilience Programme. She is a Civil Engineer and a Climate enthusiast. She can be reached at [email protected]
Mahmuda Akter is currently working as a Research Officer at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). Can be reached out at [email protected]