Bangladesh happens to be one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, more so in the current perspective of disastrous global warming and climate change. Each year, it is estimated that over ten million Bangladeshi citizens are affected by one or more natural disasters. In the last 27 years, Bangladesh's economic losses from natural disasters have amounted to USD15 billion, and it is estimated that 14 per cent of our gross domestic product is exposed to disasters.
In the past, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) had a traditional reactive approach to dealing with natural catastrophes, focusing on relief and restoration initiatives. However, significant changes in policy and institutional domains since the 1990s, focusing on the decentralisation of disaster management of local-level institutions, have been made. This has contributed to Bangladesh's transformation from the most vulnerable country in South Asia to a resilient one over the last 50 years of disaster-management leadership.
The shift from previous relief and rehabilitation measures to holistic warning-based community preparedness and cohesive-response efforts has also reduced the number of lives lost. For instance, from the attack of cyclone Bhola in 1970 (50,000 casualties) to cyclone Amphaan in 2020 (20 casualties), the number of casualties owing to natural disasters has substantially decreased due to Bangladesh's improved disaster-management infrastructure. According to the Government of Bangladesh, the country's climate-related budget allocation had also increased from USD1.44 billion in FY 2014-2015 to USD2.96 billion in FY 2021-22.
The progress achieved can be divided into two categories: the institutional framework and the legal and policy framework. Among the public-sector institutions, the National Disaster Management Council (NDMC) is the supreme authority in providing overall direction, translated into the National Plan for Disaster Management (NPDM 2021-2025). The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief (MoDMR) coordinates national disaster-management efforts across the country.
In the case of implementing and coordinating various forms of disaster- management activities, the Disaster Management Department serves as the primary body. The Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP), a worldwide known volunteer organisation of Bangladesh that combines volunteerism and communication technology, was created in 1972, following the disastrous Bhola cyclone, for the dissemination of early warning signals of cyclones to communities.
Aside from these reformed organisations, there are frontier organisations such as the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, the Flood Forecasting and Warning Center, the Water Development Board, the Fire Service, and the Civil Defense, which have also been reinforced in recent years.
Research organisations like the Institute of Water Modelling (IWM), Water Resources Planning Organisation (WARPO), Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) and others have also proven their increased capability in recent years.
In terms of policy and legal instruments, the Disaster Management (DM) Act (2012) was enacted, incorporating existing orders, reforming institutions, envisioning new institutions, putting in place necessary mechanisms, and holding the disaster- management system accountable through mandatory legal provisions.
PRE-EXISTING VULNERABILITIES OF WOMEN IN BANGLADESH: In general, women in Bangladesh are more vulnerable than men in all sectors, including literacy, socioeconomic conditions, access to information, right to voice opinions and make important decisions etc. A recent study conducted by Innovision Consulting Private Limited (ICPL) in 7 districts of Bangladesh among seven strata of men, women, adolescents and vulnerable groups (marginalised women, sex workers and transgender) gives a clear picture of the pre-existing vulnerabilities of women. Some of these insights are:
--- Though the opportunities for education for women are increasing, still a major segment of our existing female population is not literate. The study shows 53 per cent of the marginalised women never received any formal education, and only 1.0 per cent received higher-secondary education.
--- The illiteracy effect is noticed in women's socioeconomic and livelihood conditions. Income vulnerability is reportedly the highest for marginalised women as they earn much lower than other social groups' households for the same occupation. For example, a marginalised woman-led household earns Tk 4,667 per month from a grocery shop, compared to a household led by men or married women, which earns Tk 20,600 a month and Tk 24,500 a month. In addition, women in Bangladesh have a limited scope of having secondary sources of income compared to men, especially in case of sex workers.
--- Women also face discrimination in basic human rights like access to nutrition, safe hygiene, medical care, mental health care etc. Male family members get priority in allotment of nutritious food and medical treatment before the female members. In addition, it was seen that nearly 50 per cent of the respondent households have latrines outside their houses, which raises safety concerns for adolescent girls and women.
--- Marginalised women have more control over their household decisions than married women, but that is mostly because they are either single, widowed, divorced, or separated from their husbands. In the case of married households, 63 per cent of the married women responded that their husbands make household decisions, especially related to spending household income and assets.
--- Women lack access to information and agency due to their limited mobility outside their homes for various reasons, like religious barriers, social norms, household- work pressure, transportation issues etc. This can be correlated with the fact that both women and men accept gender-based violence as a norm and part of the social-power structure in Bangladesh.
Impact of disasters on increasing gender disparities: Despite the progress in disaster management, being in a natural disaster-prone geographic location, each year, some calamity or other makes gender inclusivity more challenging than the previous year in Bangladesh. There is a shortage of evidence on best practices to ensure disaster-management initiatives are effective for people from different socioeconomic groups. Given the array of pre-existing vulnerabilities already faceing women, the situation worsens with disasters. The study conducted by ICPL shows --
In terms of livelihood, men and women both suffer a reduction in income during disasters: Though sometimes men can migrate to other places to work and support their families, women cannot work for at least 15-30 days during disasters. Reportedly, the average monthly income of the male respondents decreased by 35 per cent versus 55 per cent for women respondents. This income loss of women makes them more incapable of fighting against any kind of violence due to their increased dependency on their male counterparts.
Adolescent girls suffer from mental stress due to school closures during different disasters.
Lack of nutrition becomes more acute during disasters, and the majority of women reported difficulty managing money for two meals a day. Women also suffered from multiple health and sanitation issues during different disasters.
Most importantly, a severe hit is taken by women in terms of their right to voice their opinions and decision-making authority during disasters. In most households, even if the majority of decisions were made jointly with female members involved during normal times, the situation is reversed during the disasters due to the growing conflict between family members.
Also, since women are less exposed to the public sphere in general, they do not receive critical information and warnings about approaching disasters in time. Even if they do get information in time, they have to depend on the male household members to make crucial decisions about how the family will prepare to face the disaster. Hence it can be said that women play a complementary rather than independent role in the case of disaster-preparedness.
Gender disparity in current disaster management system: Despite the successes, the disparity is still observed between men and women in the disaster- management system. The source of accessing early warnings of women is affected by inequality in economic and social capital and access to technology. As women and girls usually lack direct access to mobile phones, radio or televisions at home, they must rely on word-of-mouth early warnings. Local announcements/miking in the community area is the primary source of getting disaster early warnings for women and girls. However, the announcements are made in the local marketplaces where there is usually not much presence of women. Transgender and sex workers also do not receive early warnings in time.
The early warnings disseminated before any oncoming disaster do not contain any gender-specific message regarding women's and girls' safety, secured rehabilitation, available facilities in shelter centres and health/sanitation-related information.
The issues related to disaster early warning consequently affect disaster- preparedness for women and girls. Women usually are reluctant to leave their houses due to protecting property and assets at home, lack of safety, and security concerns, unsafe evacuation routes, lack of understanding of the warning messages etc. Moreover, insufficient infrastructure, sanitation facilities, lack of food and water supply, and insufficient space are some of the major reasons that restrict women from moving to shelter centres. However, the propensity for earlier evacuation is highest among groups with more risk. Transgender and sex workers move to shelter centres for evacuation primarily because they do not have another place to go during disasters.
Different local actors are working in coordination with government bodies to disseminate early disaster warnings. However, there is a lack of initiatives to increase risk knowledge at the community level. Warnings disseminated at the local level are not considering the gendered needs of the vulnerable women communities and are also not contextualised. An inadequate number of Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP) volunteers in remote areas is one of the major challenges for women and girls in receiving timely and accurate early warnings. Volunteers sometimes are reluctant to go to distant places due to damaged roads and the limited availability of equipment and resources to disseminate warnings.
Targeting the vulnerable women and girls' preferred convenient sources for early warning dissemination: While disseminating early warnings, it is important to assess which is the most convenient and trusted source of receiving early warnings to the specific groups. Before disseminating early warnings via voice calls/SMS, it is important to ensure that marginalised women groups have access to and use digital devices. In this regard, subsidised digital devices (mobile phones) might be offered to them so they can easily afford them. Additionally, it is critical to ensure their digital literacy through various capacity-building efforts.
Establish proper priorities while disseminating timely warnings: To allocate scarce resources most wisely, relevant stakeholders should ensure making the disaster-management choices according to the highest priority. Targeting most vulnerable for receiving timely warning needs to be ensured properly.
Comprehensive training should be provided to the volunteers to increase their understanding of the gender-differentiated needs of the vulnerable women groups: It is important to develop comprehensive strategies and implement training at multiple levels to coincide with disaster risk- reduction priorities. Volunteers need to be sensitised to the issues of gender and aware of the gender-differentiated needs of vulnerable women groups so that they can respond to the needs of specific groups accordingly.
More active engagement of women volunteers in the early warning- dissemination process is imperative to reach vulnerable female networks. Female volunteers can access spaces that men might not, making it possible for important disaster warnings to reach isolated female networks. The social standing of women can also be improved by volunteering since it gives them a place in society where they might otherwise be restricted home.
Effective mechanisms should be in place to increase and continue the motivation of the volunteers who work in disseminating early warnings. They should be provided with adequate equipment (raincoats, torch, transportation, hand mikes etc) so that they can reach the most vulnerable areas to disseminate warnings.
Sensitisation and involvement of relevant local authorities: It is important to ensure that the local-government officials with administrative responsibility (UNO, Chairmen, DWA officials) understand the importance of gender and the implications of gender sensitivity in programme planning and implementation. To ensure this, gender-sensitive disaster-risk- reduction training is needed for both men and women local-level officials at all levels.
Involvement of local community: Early- warning systems need to be inherently and actively people-centric. A local, 'bottom-up' approach to early warning, with the active participation of local communities, including marginalised groups, can ensure that the contents of the warnings and preparedness messages meet their needs and are socially and culturally appropriate.
A disaster-management system is integral to disaster-preparedness, which in turn is central to building the resilience of households and communities to disaster. Building gender-sensitive disaster- management systems requires mainstreaming gender into disaster- management governance and institutional arrangements as a cross-cutting issue. Moreover, a proactive effort is needed to reach out to, partner with, and listen to the voices of marginalised gender groups, carefully considering which voices are missing.
Nafees Maharuf Shafakat is Portfolio Manager - Economic Growth
Innovision Consulting Private Limited. [email protected]
Faria Mridha Nitisha is Portfolio Manager - Gender and Basic Services
Innovision Consulting Private Limited. [email protected]
Sayera Sun-Um Nusaka is Associate - Economic Growth Portfolio
Innovision Consulting Private Limited. [email protected]
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