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The Impact of Climate Change on Gender Inequality in Bangladesh

30 Sep 2022
By Associate Professor Sanzida Akhter
Joygum Begum washes her hands. Source: Conor Ashleigh for AusAID.

Bangladesh, a riverine delta land, is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Climate disasters disproportionately affect women in Bangladesh by increasing their burden of work in the private and public spheres, by displacing them and their families from rural areas, and by worsening access to reproductive and other health care. 

In Bangladesh’s coastal zone, 40 million people are at risk of salinity intrusion, cyclone and storm surges, and tidal waves, and this figure is expected to grow to about 60.8 million by 2050. Between 1970 and 2020, 15 major cyclones hit coastal areas with devastating effects on human life, nature, and physical infrastructure. Since 1990, Bangladesh has experienced 90 significant flood events, which have caused about 6279 deaths and adversely affected around 152 million people. Climate-induced disasters not only have short and long term impacts on the lives and livelihoods of Bangladeshi people, they also amplify existing social problems such as gender inequality as women and men experience the impact of climate change in different ways.

The World Bank estimates that by 2050 the number of Bangladeshis displaced by climate change will reach 13.3 million, which will create immense pressure on Bangladesh’s limited urban spaces and resources. Already, around 40 percent of the population live in slums and squatter settlements in the cities. The people who remain on their land experience hardship due to decreased productivity and a lack of a support network. The already low socio-economic status of women is further degraded for women who live in congested urban slums. Displaced rural homemakers and agriculture workers often work in the informal labour market without adequate skill, bargaining capacity, and social network, and they are consequently paid less. Women in urban areas earn 31 percent less than men in the informal sector. Yet women’s paid work is often done in addition to having sole responsibility of unpaid care work. Moreover, the transition from rural to urban life creates psychological stress, such as fear of a new place, trauma, and loneliness. Yet when only husbands migrate, leaving their wives in their village homes, the women’s situation likewise gets worse as they lose access to their husbands’ income and their mobility becomes restricted.

Health and well-being are other areas in which women are disproportionately impacted following a natural disaster. This is particularly evident in cyclone-prone areas such as Bhola, Patuakhali, Barguna, Khulna, Bagerhat, and Satkhira. Increased water salinity caused by cyclones in the coastal belt of Bangladesh has changed water collection and water management practices. In Bangladesh, women are primarily responsible for household water collection, sanitation, hygiene, and most of the domestic chores. Increased water salinity, combined with droughts, make safe drinking water less accessible. When women must travel farther to access safe water, the existing burden of housework increases, taking additional time and causing physical distress. Women also experience difficulties in maintaining menstrual and other reproductive health hygiene in flood and cyclone-affected areas. Proper menstrual hygiene facilities are not always available in disaster shelter areas in Bangladesh. Women in those affected areas also suffer from diseases such as dysentery, diarrhea, and skin rashes due to consuming and using saline water more than men.

The longest-lasting impact climate change has on people’s lives in Bangladesh occurs when families impacted by disaster choose or are forced to marry their daughters off at 16 or even younger or put their sons to work as child labourers. There is a positive correlation between the incidence of early marriage and climate-related shocks, with a spike in child marriage occurring shortly after natural disasters in south-western districts of Bangladesh. The major impetus for child marriage during and after disasters is aggravated by poverty, school disruption, fear of sexual harassment, and societal pressure.

However, despite all of these adverse impacts, Bangladeshi women are fighting back with their resilience and adaptation skills. Rural women, who are closely connected with land and nature, have developed a range of novel adaptation strategies with their local knowledge, hidden savings, and by leveraging social capital. Particularly, in cases where men leave home to earn money, women have found it possible to earn an income by working in agriculture and selling handmade products. There are also range of government bodies and non-government organisations that support these initiatives, which also results in stronger community mobilisation.

The contribution of low-income countries such as Bangladesh to climate change through carbon emissions and other causes is often negligible, but they disproportionately bear the burden of the negative consequences of climate change. Bangladesh has been formulating policies to combat the impacts of climate change. The country’s climate action plan has prioritised the needs of the poor and vulnerable, including women and children, in its six sectors of action: food security, social protection and health, comprehensive disaster management, infrastructure, research and knowledge management, mitigation and low-carbon development, and capacity building and institutional strengthening. Appropriate policy initiatives along with community mobilisation and utilisation of local skills and knowledge will help build sustainable resilience and reduce the gendered impact of climate change.

Sanzida Akhter is Associate Professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Dhaka University, Bangladesh.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.