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The invisible issues in flood response

  • Published at 06:02 pm November 4th, 2019

Grassroots realities needs to be accounted for in order to build an effective response

“When the husband doesn’t get the meal coming back home, he’ll hurl abusive words, that’s only normal. So during the flood, when the family went without food, it was common. Sometimes it was too much. I wanted to retort but couldn’t, fearing his beating. Since I couldn’t run away to escape his beating, with water all around. If I did snap at him sometimes, he would beat me and not give money for food for days.”

Selima Begum from Nimkusharpar village at Pachgachi Union of Kurigram Sadar was narrating the plight women endured during the last monsoon flood that brought untold sufferings to women in her village.

The last monsoon flood in July 2019 inflicted 28 districts of which Kurigram, Jamalpur, Gaibandha, Sirajganj, Sunamganj, Bogra, and Bandarban were particularly hit hard. More than a hundred people lost lives and more than 7 million people were affected. 

I asked Selina if the husband didn’t give money for food, how did she eat? Snap came the answer: “Oh, what is it to him, he would sit in the tea stall, sip tea, and munch biscuits all day.” Selina said she lost 25 chickens and two goats. “What do I do, do I catch my children or the chickens from being swept away with flood water? After flood, I couldn’t feed the goats. There wasn’t any fodder and the goats died.”

I was talking with a group of women at the Nimkusharpar village. The women told me how they struggled with the flood. They faced problem, with cooking. There was hardly any dry fuel wood, or stoves.

When they were at makeshift flood shelters at school, or Union Parishad building or at embankments, several families would take turns to cook one meal in the few available stoves. 

They stayed initially at their own house erecting a dhorna which is a kind of platform beneath the roof, but when the water level kept rising and the current grew stronger they couldn’t dare to stay there; instead went to shelters. That was difficult since there were not many big boats; smaller boats couldn’t ply in that strong current. So the few big ones would charge high to transport them to shelters; depending on family size they would charge Tk200 to Tk500.    

A big problem was sanitation and hygiene. During the flood (15 days of inundation) since all the latrines were under water, the women would eat and drink minimum, fearing the need of defecation; they would wait for the dark for it. They defecated and bathed in the open water hoping the strong current helped them in such case. 

However, as a result of drinking very little, most of the women afterwards suffered from urinary tract infection (UTI) and other such problems. The women were also complaining about the clothes being supplied to them by NGOs for menstrual management. They said washing and drying the clothes in crammed flood shelters was extremely difficult. They would have preferred sanitary pads. 

Women complained about a lack of safety and security in shelters. After evening there were no lights which caused much anxiety amongst the women and girls. In Pachgachi Union, 14-year-old, intellectually impaired Ayesha (pseudo name) was squatting in a school with her grandmother. Her mother works in garments factory in the city.

One evening when her grandma went out of the shelter a man swooped in and took her to a dark corner under the staircase and raped her. A case was filed and the perpetrator was put to jail; but his family bribed the local influential people, and Ayesha’s grandmother, and settled the matter.

Ayesha is now kept out of sight.

These are some of the snippets of the struggles and gender-based violence of the last flood, and many other previous floods that women faced, that seldom made headlines.

After 2019 flood, the humanitarian community led by the United Nation’s Resident Coordinator’s Office with support from Need Assessment Working Group did a quick need assessment.

Based on that UN Women produced a Gender Analysis of the flood impacts.

It cited that 57% of the affected women were of reproductive age (15 to 50), and 10% of the affected women in the most affected districts were from female headed households.

Some of the recommendations made for immediate and mid-term recovery were:

For immediate response

• Repairing or installing HH level latrines; special attention to be given to FHHs

• Maternal health care especially for pregnant and lactating mothers, along with special care for new born babies

• Supplementary feeding and drinking water support for pregnant and lactating mothers

For mid-term response 

• Collect sex, age, and disability disaggregated data of disaster loss and damage to design an informed and gender responsive recovery plan

• Numbers of flood shelters could be built through cash for work schemes with adequate facilities eg separate toilets and bathing space for women, men, and persons with disability as well as space for reproductive health care and hygiene practice of women and adolescent girls

• Timing and place of relief distribution should be accessible to women and timed in a way that it’s finished with adequate daylight for the women to go back home before dark

• Strong referral system should be in place to avoid the potential GBV risk for women and girls, eg sex for food

• Women-friendly spaces could be set up to provide GBV services and multi-sectoral life savings services

• Continue emergency medical services in the nine severely flood-affected districts till the end of monsoon season to ensure health services to women and girls who often find it difficult to travel distances for their health care needs. Especially, the pregnant and lactating women need reproductive health care support

• Invest in livelihood opportunities, especially off-farm activities for women along with men in flood prone areas, especially for vulnerable women and female headed households

• Quick growing vegetable seeds should be distributed to women to restart kitchen gardening that would contribute to nutrition and food security 

• FHHs should be given preference in providing shelter

The problems cited by the women from Nimkusharpar village are not unique; women from around the country endure such problems every time there’s a disastrous flood or cyclone. Our disaster management strategies and tools need to have women’s issues built in. 

Dilruba Haider, Program Specialist, DRR, Climate, UN Women Bangladesh.

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