Gender and Disaster in Bangladesh
Gender and Disaster in Bangladesh
- Mahbuba NasreenMahbuba NasreenUniversity of Dhaka
Disasters are a frequent phenomenon in Bangladesh and have increased in frequency and severity since the late eighties. The consecutive devastating floods of 1987 and 1988 and the cyclone of 1991 attracted international attention. Due to geographical settings and anthropogenic causes, the country is exposed to disasters that include devastating floods, cyclones, tornadoes, tidal surges, riverbank erosion, drought, and salinity intrusion; and climate change is intensifying these events. Challenges of hazards and disasters affect all segments of the population, however, there is a gender dimension that shows the way women and men respond and adapt to these disasters. Both women and men are unable to utilize their time in productive activities due to the absence of employment opportunities. Women and girls have a wider range of responsibilities in their households due to their socially defined gender identity. During a disaster the affected households are often forced to move to shelters or refuges, where women have to perform their gender-assigned domestic responsibilities in difficult circumstances. When men move elsewhere in search of work, women have to shoulder both women’s and men’s tasks to maintain family sustenance with available resources. Women and girls suffer more than men from poverty, hunger, malnutrition, economic crises, environmental degradation, insecurity, and health-related problems, including those related to reproductive health and adolescence. Women and girls are also frequent victims of violence. However, despite challenges, women’s strategies are vital to rural populations’ ability to cope with and adapt to different phases of disasters. Gender and disaster discourse seeks explanations of the principal factors structuring the responses of women and girls during crises and in postdisaster situations. Issues related to women’s gender-specific disaster vulnerabilities and resilience mechanisms, and how they are affected by climate change and pandemic, require continuous research, and legal and regulatory frameworks must mainstream gender and disaster with inclusive interventions.
- Gender Issues
The geographical location, land characteristics, multiplicity of rivers, and the monsoon climate render Bangladesh highly vulnerable to hazards and disasters. The country is exposed to natural and human-induced hazards and disasters, such as floods, flash floods, cyclones, drought, tidal surges, tornadoes, earthquakes, lightning (categorized as a disaster in 2016), river erosion, fire, infrastructural collapse, chemical explosions, landslides, arsenic contamination in groundwater, waterlogging, salinity intrusion, cold waves, and so on (SoD, 2019). Due to the frequency of disasters, Bangladesh has been identified as one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. According to the Fragile State Index of 2015, Bangladesh ranked 32 out of 178 countries, and the World Risk Index ranks Bangladesh 5th of 172. Anthropogenic disasters, such as infrastructure collapse, fire, and chemical explosion, are also becoming more prevalent (Azad et al., 2013). But the nature of occurrence, season, and extent of the effect of disasters is not the same in all places or for all people (Nasreen, 2008). There are variations of occurrences of disasters as well as impacts according to different agroecological zones.
Floods and cyclones are the most common disasters in Bangladesh and have attracted international attention. These disasters disproportionately affect women and poor people. In the highly stratified, gendered culture and society, the relational analysis of hazards, disasters, and climate change requires a thorough understanding of the sociocultural structure of Bangladesh. Since the inception of independent Bangladesh, the government, development partners, and national and international organizations have increasingly shown a commitment to reducing disaster risk, and gender issues have received specific attention since the mid-1990s (Hanchett & Nasreen, 1992; Nasreen, 1995, 2008).
Why Focus on Gender in Disaster Risk Reduction? A Global Perspective
Globally, women’s realities, perceptions, needs, interests, and responses are different from those of men. Gender identity is the universal form of social exclusion, and gender-based attributes, opportunities, and relationships are socially constructed, learned, and changeable over time. Among all intersectional categories (e.g., people living in poverty, lower castes, persons with disabilities) women and girls are more marginalized because of gendered power relations that privilege men and subordinate women. Women’s disadvantages, which include unequal access to resources, legal protection, and decision-making power; reproductive burden; and vulnerability to violence, consistently render them more vulnerable than men to the impacts of disasters. This limits their participation in risk reduction or disaster response actions and increases their vulnerability to disasters (Sharma et al., 2014).
Historically, theories and approaches on gender and disasters were scant, and researchers tended to focus on a social vulnerability approach (Alexander, 1993; Bolin et al., 1998; Hewitt, 1997; Quarantelli, 1978; Wisner et al., 2004). The social dimensions of gender, class, race, culture, nationality, age, and other power relationships were not given due attention. Women as a social category was prone to overgeneralization, and women’s dependency and need were overemphasized (Fordham, 2004). In the late 1990s, researchers started to investigate specific structural sources and root causes of disaster vulnerability based on sex and gender (Enarson & Morrow, 1998; Nasreen, 1995). This also related to understanding disasters as products of the larger economic and political systems in which they occur (Hewitt, 1997; Torry, 1979). Disasters do not simply happen; they are products of preexisting social and economic forces within the society (Zaman, 1999). Disaster effects are not only related to identifying the number of deaths, the value of destroyed property, and the decrease in per capita income. The symbolic component of disaster requires knowledge of the sense of vulnerability and the adequacy of available explanation (Barkun, 1977). Among the different approaches adopted in disaster research, geography and sociology dominated the field; for example, Drabek (1986) discussed the significant contributions of sociological disaster research. In the late 1980s sociologists turned their attention to the larger questions of social change related to disaster or the pre-impact conditions in disaster areas as sources of post-impact changes (Oliver-Smith, 1986). Sociologists attempted to identify reasons for “marginalized syndrome” caused by impoverishment of disadvantaged groups in the community of developing countries (Nasreen, 2009). A sociological approach also addresses vulnerability and the impact of disaster on patterns of human behavior and community functions and organization (Drabek, 1986; Dynes, 1970; Mileti et al., 1975). However, in the early days of the discipline most sociological disaster research was conducted in the developed world, and applying those findings in a developing country context was problematic. Moreover, early theoretical approaches contained almost no discussion of the gender response to disaster (Nasreen, 1995, 2009). Although gender issues have been part of global development agendas and are a universal form of social exclusion, they have not been globally realized. Researchers have argued for a focus on gender-sensitive development in context of disaster risk reduction (Fordham, 2009; Nasreen, 1995, 2009). The differential needs of women and men, girls and boys have to be understood to ensure gender equality (Fordham, 2009), and researchers are gradually moving toward more nuanced, international, and comparative approaches for examining other categories based on race, ethnicity, nationality, and social class. As disasters affect women and girls more than men and boys, violating the fundamental rights of the former category, gender relations have become part of the human experience of disaster (Enarson & Morrow, 1998; Nasreen, 2008). Despite significant barriers to a gender equitable approach to mitigation, preparedness, relief and recovery, disaster specialists, activists, advocates, networks, and organizations have begun to work on gender and disaster in a coordinated manner. Following the post 2015 discussions about the absence of gender and disaster risk reduction in the global agenda, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) began to focus on the issue, and countries increasingly considered gender mainstreaming efforts in disaster risk reduction (DRR; Enarson, 2009; UNDRR, 2019). Contributions of global gender groups and actors to implantation of gender in DRR activities have followed global commitments, especially those included in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR, 2016–2030).
The theoretical approaches adopted in gender studies on inequality, socialization, and roles have been emphasized in gender and disaster research. This is because the factors behind gender inequalities—such as women’s subordinate position in the global economy, exclusion from participation in the political sphere, division of labor, childcare responsibility, and cultural practices (norms and values)—reinforce women’s subordination (Enarson, 1999; Horton, 2015). However, gender and disaster studies indicate that despite their vulnerability women are not only disaster victims but also survivors, responders, and resilient individuals, whose capacities and recovery resources merit investigation (Enarson, 1999; Enarson & Morrow, 1997; Hoffman, 1999; Nasreen, 1995). For example, women’s contributions to formal and informal networks are central to household and community recovery (Enarson & Morrow, 1997; Hoffman, 1999; Nasreen, 1995).
South Asia is highly susceptible to natural and anthropogenic disasters due to geophysical location, land characteristics, and other factors. In addition, countries in South Asia are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (The Global Climate Risk Index, 2019). Since the 1990s, the region has developed risk reduction and mitigation mechanisms to address the adversities that they frequently experience. However, there are inclusion challenges of risk management in the region as, in most cases, exclusion cuts across intersectional groups and contexts. Physical, economic, and social vulnerability are closely linked and impose differential impacts based on age, gender, physical disability, and other marginal identities (Sharma et al., 2014). Bangladesh encounters frequent disasters due to a fragile geographical location and human-induced causes, which makes life precarious for vulnerable populations, and especially so for women. However, despite challenges, these groups show ingenuity, fortitude, and resilience during crises (Nasreen, 2020; Nasreen, 2019).
Pioneering, in-depth research on gender and disaster in Bangladesh pointed out that earlier studies were general in nature and had not dealt with women’s situations during disasters (Nasreen, 1995). Documenting gender-based experiences of disaster-free periods is necessary because gender response to disasters is inextricably linked to everyday life. Due to sociocultural constructions, women’s realities differ from those of men and increase their vulnerabilities in hazardous conditions. Women’s subordinate position in the society is determined from early childhood. Girls and boys are socialized with different identities: boys as assets and girls as liabilities. From childhood, girls are trained to fit into the dominant, socially approved feminine roles of wife and mother (Nasreen, 1995). The gender differences that shape the lives of women and men involve some salient concepts: parda or veiling, child marriage, gender division of labor, access to and control over resources, female-headed households, and violence against women. These concepts are vital to understanding the gender dimension in rural settings during disaster-free as well as post disaster periods.
Gender and Disaster in Bangladesh: The Emergence of a Grounded Theory
Although disasters are as old as its history and occur worldwide, events in Bangladesh attracted significant international attention following two consecutive floods in 1987 and 1988 and a devastating cyclone in 1991. The frequent and severe disasters resulted in significant loss of life and livelihoods, as well as assets. Some of the negative gender-specific impacts included coping mechanisms, such as reducing meal size, opting for less nutritious food, remaining half fed or unfed, and becoming displaced.
However, grounded theory developed in the mid-1990s with a relational analysis of the gender dimension in disasters argued that despite vulnerabilities, women in Bangladesh contribute significantly to resilience through a range of socioeconomic activities (Nasreen, 1995). During disasters women continue to be bearers of and caregivers to children; collectors and providers of food, fuel, water, medicinal herbs, and fodder; and protectors of household belongings. They also represent a productive potential that earlier research had not acknowledged. Nasreen (1995, 2019) noted that women’s strategies are vital to the resilience of rural populations following disasters.
D’Cunha and Nasreen (1999) and Nasreen (1995, 2009, 2011) found that information on gender and disaster in both government and nongovernmental organizations was extremely scant. Although some organizations did focus on women’s empowerment, they overlooked situations of women in disasters. Some projects (mostly nongovernmental) focused on gender and disasters, but there was no coordinated effort in mainstreaming the gender dimension in disasters. Discussions about developing an interface on gender and disaster management interventions of government, academic, and nongovernmental actors indicated that a gap existed in sharing knowledge and experiences of actors due to the absence of concise analysis of the existing initiatives (Nasreen, 2011).
This article argues that it is women who have adopted many of the strategies that are crucial for disaster resilience of their households. It also attempts to identify vulnerabilities of women and girls in disaster situations and their responses to them. Explanation of these phenomena is sought in the economic, cultural, and political structures of the society at large (Nasreen, 1995). It is evident that as a result of changes in the global policy, environment, government, development partners, nongovernmental organizations, and other actors have gradually increased the documentation of the realities of gender-based vulnerabilities, adaptation, and resilience to disasters.
Gender in the Disaster Management Discourse
Although disasters affect all segments of the population, there are gender variations to vulnerability and resilience during these events. Women and girls in disaster-prone locations face a number of problems related to their gender identity. Both women and men become vulnerable to time management and efficient productivity due to absence of employment opportunities. In Bangladesh, a grounded theory was developed in the mid-1990s emphasizing women’s gender-based contributions to disasters (Nasreen, 1995). It also portrayed the vulnerabilities of women, arguing that “disaster affects both women and men but the burden of coping falls heavily on women” (Nasreen, 2019, p. 2). For example, during and after a disaster, men in rural areas move elsewhere as they lose their places of work while women remain at home, looking after children, elderly relatives, family property, and resources. The gender division of labor becomes intensified as women have to shoulder the responsibilities of absent men as well as their own. During disasters women and girls feel insecure, face reproductive health–related problems, and become victims of violence due to discriminatory practices that exist in the society, such as considering them a liability (Bangladesh Association of Parliamentarians on Population and Development [BAPPD, 2020]; ISDR, UNDP, & IUCN, 2009; Nasreen, 2008, 2010, 2019).
There was no theory or extensive empirical sociological research about rural women’s experiences during disaster in Bangladesh until Nasreen conducted research following the two consecutive devastating floods of 1987 and 1988. The grounded theory of women’s response to living with floods indicates that in disaster situations women should be perceived more from a contributory perspective than a vulnerability perspective (Nasreen, 1995). Nasreen (1995) argued that despite their vulnerability, women and girls are resilient and present continuous ingenuity and fortitude during disasters. Other research revealed that the gender dimension of disaster—that is, vulnerabilities and capabilities associated with women and girls—often go largely unrecognized (Ariyabandu & Wickremasinghe, 2003; Nasreen, 1995, 2008). However, the gender dimension in disasters received a new orientation with the UN’s 2012 International Day for Disaster Reduction theme of “Women and Girls: Invisible Force of Resilience.” The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) selected the theme focusing on women and girls in disaster management discourse for several reasons. First, the country progress reports compiled by the UNDRR indicated that a significant majority of the countries in the Asia Pacific region (including Bangladesh) reported partial, little, or no reliable progress in the resiliency of women and girls and did not adopt any gender perspective to DRR systems. Although the UNDRR initiated DRR efforts by declaring 1990–1999 the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), the major focus was on raising worldwide awareness related to social and economic consequences of “natural” hazards and disasters. The Yokohama Strategy for a Safer World: Guidelines for Natural Disaster Prevention, Preparedness and Mitigation and its plan of action were adopted in 1994 at the First World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction as part of midterm review on the IDNDR. The UNISDR was formed in 1999 to coordinate the activities and strategies of the IDNDR. The Johannesburg plan of action of the 2002 world summit also talked about vulnerability, risk assessment, and disaster management issues and proposed an integrated multihazard, inclusive approach. In 2005 the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA). However, a gender dimension to disasters was not prioritized in these global meetings or by the implementing countries, and the HFA progress report (2012) recognized considerable room for improvement in focusing on gender in relation to DRR. Bangladesh and other South Asian countries initiated gender and disaster issues in policy and regulatory frameworks, but they focused on “women’s vulnerability” rather than their contributions.
Since 2015, development agendas on DRR have focused more on gender, and countries have formed committees on mainstreaming gender and DRR with members from government, academia, and civil society. The findings of these committees were reflected in the SFDRR, 2016–2030, which incorporated gender issues across the priority areas. The Sendai Framework was built on four areas of action:
Understanding disaster risk
Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk
Investing in DRR for resilience
Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction
The HFA was developed during the period of global focus on achieving Millennium Development Goals, whereas the SFDRR timeframe is similar to that of the UN’s 2016 agenda for sustainable development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emphasize gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls, denouncing all forms of gender discrimination and violence against women. To attain the SDGs, gender-specific inequalities must be addressed, such as equal distribution of economic resources and unpaid work between women and men (UN Women, 2017).
The Gender and DRR Thematic Group in Asia (2015) identified close linkages between the SDGs and SFDRR and expressed the need for action (Nasreen, 2017). A matrix can be referred here as example. Table 1 presents a comparative analysis on gender implications of SDG targets and Sendai features.
Table 1: Comparing Gender and DRR in Line With SDGs & SFDRR
Sustainable Development Target
Sendai Framework Text
Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
5.5 Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.
Guiding principles (19d) page 13: “Disaster risk reduction requires an all-of-society engagement and partnership. It also requires empowerment and inclusive, accessible and non-discriminatory participation, paying special attention to people disproportionately affected by disasters, especially the poorest. A gender, age, disability and cultural perspective should be integrated in all policies and practices, and women and youth leadership should be promoted.”
Priority 4 (32) page 21: “Empowering women and persons with disabilities to publicly lead and promote gender equitable and universally accessible response, recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction approaches is key.”
5.b Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women.
Priority 4 “National and Local Levels” (33(b)) Page 21: “To invest in, develop, maintain and strengthen people-centered multihazard, multisectoral forecasting and early warning systems, disaster risk and emergency communications mechanisms, social technologies and hazard-monitoring telecommunications systems; develop such systems through a participatory process; tailor them to the needs of users, including social and cultural requirements, in particular gender; promote the application of simple and low-cost early warning equipment and facilities; and broaden release channels for natural disaster early warning information.”
5.a Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.
5.c Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.
Part V “Role of Stakeholders” 36(a)i page 23: “Women and their participation are critical to effectively managing disaster risk and designing, resourcing and implementing gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction policies, plans and programmes; and adequate capacity building measures need to be taken to empower women for preparedness as well as to build their capacity to secure alternate means of livelihood in post-disaster situations.”
6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.
6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations
6.b support and strengthen the participation of local communities for improving water and sanitation management.
Target 4: Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030
Priority 4 Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, and to «Build Back Better» in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction Women and persons with disabilities should publicly lead and promote gender-equitable and universally accessible approaches during the response and reconstruction phases
Gender Response During the Most Common Disasters in Bangladesh
Floods and cyclones are frequent in Bangladesh and receive extensive attention from the global community. Many studies from different disciplines have been conducted on these two types of disasters, and several projects (both structural and nonstructural) have been undertaken by the government and nongovernmental organizations as remedial measures.
Flood is the most common disaster in Bangladesh, occurring annually with severe events in the months of July and August. Regular river floods affect 20% of the country, and in extreme years they may affect up to 68%. Flood hazards have significantly increased since 1987, sometimes covering more than 80% of the net cultivated area. Floods destroy transportation and communication systems, damaging roads, culverts, bridges, embankments, boats, and other infrastructure. Although floods are identified as “destructive,” Bangladesh’s economy would not exist without riverine floods. The soil fertility of the country is replenished with millions of tons of silt brought in by river water. This is the reason that the English term “flood” has to be understood both by its “normalcy” (borsha) and “severity” (bonna). The Bangla term borsha refers to the monsoon flood, a very much expected phenomenon that is important for the country’s agriculture-dependent economy, whereas bonna, or abnormal flood, implies a disastrous event that destroys crops, threatens lives, and damages resources (Alam, 1990; Nasreen, 1995; Paul, 1984; Shaw, 1989).
Alam (1990) and Nasreen (1995, 2008) noted that floods as disaster have been well researched, documented, and recorded, but the specific responses of women and girls to floods have not been studied as a separate topic. Their surveys of the literature noted that it highlighted misfortune and damages related to floods, as well as their causes; socioeconomic impact; and control, management, and mitigation. Women’s contributions, gender-assigned activities, and responses were rarely recorded. A few early works highlighted peoples’ responses during natural disasters (Feldman & McCarthy, 1983; Hossain et al., 1992) but contained insignificant information on women. Later studies concentrated on the problems of women during floods from social perspectives, and while this research lacked details about women’s responses to disasters, it deserves credit for attempts to understand the specific challenges faced by women in these circumstances (Adnan, 1990; Ahsan & Khatun, 2004; Alam, 1991; Ariyabandu & Wickermasinghe, 2003; Dasgupta et al., 2010; Hanchett, 1992; Hanchett & Nasreen, 1992; Shaw, 1989).
The pioneering research on flood coping elucidates that strict gender division of labor exists in different phases of floods. Floods create acute problems for some types of activities, such as cooking, cleaning, procuring drinking water, and caring for small children and animals. Because of the strong gender division of labor, women have to perform these activities even during difficult circumstances. During flood events, women’s responsibilities increase, as they take on men’s obligations. However, men do not participate in domestic chores (Azad et al., 2013; Nasreen, 1995, 2019). Women may have to walk through neck- and chest-high water to fetch drinking water, collect fuelwood, and carry out other essentials activities. Azad et al. (2013) pointed out that 84% of women faced difficulties in cooking for want of fuelwood during and after flood situations. Poorer women encounter shortages of food and other essentials, which may result in price increases and a consequent decline in purchasing power. There are variations in context of disaster responses based on the economic condition of a household. Studies indicate that coping strategies of women and men in different classes/categories vary significantly (Nasreen, 1995, 2019). Rural populations are categorized according to the landholding criteria of the Bangladesh government (i.e., destitute, landless, small farmer, middle farmer, rich farmer), and disaster preparedness activities differ significantly among the groups (Nasreen, 1995, 2019). For example, only 11% of women in the destitute category and 30% in the landless category were able to store food before floods because they did not have the resources required for purchasing or storing food (Nasreen, 1995, 2019).
Cyclones, the second most common type of hazard in Bangladesh, are associated with storm surge, lead to deaths (human and other species), and disrupt the economy. In addition, outbreaks of waterborne epidemics, like cholera and diarrhea, are associated with cyclones. Since the 1990s, almost all of the coastal areas and offshore islands have affected by cyclones and tidal bores.1 However, cyclones in coastal regions in Bangladesh are not a new phenomenon.
The coastal zone in Bangladesh is composed of 19 sea-facing districts and nearly 600 kilometers of coastline, which are vulnerable to frequent cyclones in May and November. Other challenges experienced by people living in the coastal zone include floods, tidal surges, riverbank erosion, long-term waterlogging, overflow of river water, thunderstorms, and tidal flooding (Choudhury et al., 2019; Haque & Jahan, 2015; Juran & Trivedi, 2015; Sarker et al., 2019). Super cyclone Amphan of May 2020 left a trail of devastation in the region with wind speeds of up to 180 kph and over 10-foot tidal surges.
Cyclones cause deaths of human and other species and devastate and destroy resources. However, based on the lessons learned from the earlier experiences of cyclones and changes in disaster management systems, the government of Bangladesh has gradually been able reduce the number of deaths from three digits to two. As a consequence of cyclone and other anthropogenic activities, people in coastal regions face several challenges, mostly related to water, such as salinity intrusion in soil and water, water logging, and river erosion. Since the 1990s, soil and water salinity have been a major concern of this region as livelihoods depend on these two resources. Sarker (2020) found that livelihoods in coastal communities are closely connected to water-related parameters. Water stress influences the agriculture-based economy and only better-off people are able to adopt alternative strategies or diversify their livelihoods, engaging in nonfarming activities to maintain their sustenance. Zaman (2018) argued that gendered water–poverty relations need to be emphasized for DRR mechanisms in coastal regions. Adaptation and resilient strategies adopted by female- and male-headed households in cyclone-prone areas differ significantly (Mersha & Von Learhoven, 2016; Sarker, 2020).
Gender-Based Vulnerabilities, Adaptation, and Resilience of Women
Studies on vulnerability to disasters have argued that social vulnerability produces physical vulnerability, especially when it comes in contact with a hazard that produces physical or economic damage and there is an increased loss of life (Azad et al., 2013; Brooks & Adger, 2003; Downing et al., 2005; Watts & Bohle, 1993). Vulnerabilities of individuals, groups, and communities become intensified in the absence of adequate economic means for households’ sustenance (Sen, 1980). Disaster research and disaster management systems often place women in socially vulnerable categories and identify them as the most vulnerable or excluded group. Two sides of vulnerability have been identified: external (risks, shocks, and stress to which an individual or household is subjected) and another internal (defenselessness, lack of means to cope) (Chambers, 1989). Both external and internal vulnerabilities are connected to social, physical and environmental challenges in a gendered culture. For example, external vulnerability makes women more stressed than men, whereas internal vulnerabilities are linked with lack of power and limited means to coping with disaster risks, shocks.
Women’s lower sociocultural position determines their vulnerabilities, coping strategies, and resilience in disasters, which often lead them to compromise with cultural norms. In gendered cultures and economic structures, women tend to suffer more than men from poverty, hunger, malnutrition, economic crises, health-related problems, insecurity, and violence that result from environmental degradation, disasters, and climate change. Gender identity leads to increased vulnerability of women and children (Nasreen, 2003; Reyes, 2002; Wisner et al., 2004).
Reproductive health of women is negatively affected by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, salinity intrusion, lack of water and sanitation facilities, and limited health support. Climate-induced hazards, water logging, salinity intrusion, floods, riverbank erosion, and droughts cause higher death rates and insecurity among women and girls, and they often lead to increases in school leaving and child marriage (Nasreen & Tate, 2007). Women and adolescent girls also must cope with unhygienic menstrual management, reproductive health–related problems, disabilities, and physical and sexual violence during disaster and postdisaster phases (Geere et al., 2010; Nasreen, 2008; Nasreen et al., 2014; REACH, 2015). In Bangladesh, living patterns; individual life expectancy; access to agricultural land; availability of education, health, social security, and other basic services in coastal and other disaster-affected areas are lower than the national average (Nasreen, 2008; Shamsuddoha & Chowdhury, 2007). The recurrent climatic variability and natural disasters place marginal communities at risk, especially women. As communities adapt to frequent calamities, women bear more physical burden than men due to gender-specific tasks (Nasreen, 2008). It has been argued that understanding women’s and girls’ gender-specific responses to disasters is important because it can help design better strategies to make Bangladesh resilient to disasters (Nasreen, 2019, 2017). The gender-based differential of experiences in disasters has to be understood in relation to the socioeconomic conditions of households and existing cultural norms, such as the institution of veiling or parda. Since parda of Muslim women requires them to do most of their work inside their homes, it is much more difficult for them to do work in public sphere (Nasreen, 1995, 2019).
Violence against women and girls, harassment, and teasing increase during disasters. Research on violence against women during and following floods in Bangladesh indicated the denial of women’s human rights, including rights to information, food, safe water and sanitation, healthcare facilities, education, housing and ownership, land and inheritance, livelihood, participation in decision making, and protection, security, and bodily integrity (Nasreen, 2008). All of the women and girls reported that they had suffered from different types of violence, including emotional, physical, and sexual violence. Floods lead to unemployment among men, and they often release their frustration by mistreating women. A woman mentioned that it is normal that during flood men (husbands) become frustrated and women (wives) have to make them cool (Nasreen, 2008, p. 46).
Structural discrimination against women, such as early marriage, men’s unemployment, frustration, dowry, use of drugs/smoking, and lack of security, have been identified by women as causes of violence against them. Studies conducted in developed countries also reported an increase in domestic violence during a disaster (Dobson, 1994; Enarson, 1999; Enarson & Fordham, 2001; Enarson & Morrow, 1997). Research on gender-based violence is scant in other parts of the world, including South Asia; however, several studies have been conducted in Bangladesh (Aryabandu & Wickramasinghe, 2003; Nasreen, 2008); Sri Lanka (Fisher, 2009); the Philippines (Delica, 1998); and Nicaragua (Delaney & Shrader, 2000; Solorzano & Montoya, 2000). Nasreen (2008, 2010) researched insecurity and occurrences of violence against women and adolescent girls who were housed in shelters after flooding events. Similarly, Fischer mentioned that in Sri Lanka, gender-based violence against women was caused by many complex situations that increased significantly during disasters. However, the presence of women’s support groups and preestablished programs to combat GBV played a significant role in reducing GBV in disaster situations. Nasreen (1995, 2008) and Nasreen and Shamim (2019) pointed out that child marriage increases during disasters. Parents marry off their daughters during disasters as girls are insecure in both homes and shelters. Marrying off a daughter during a disaster may also relate to parent’s poor economic conditions.
It is evident that floods or high levels of salinity and river erosion affect agricultural production, forcing women and men to search for alternative tasks that make women susceptible to multiple gendered discriminations. Women who work outside their family farms encounter various types of gender-based discrimination in the workplace. Some of them include lower payment, an unequal division of labor (e.g., water collection is only women’s responsibility), and working longer hours than men. Women who work in agriculture and aquaculture and in other casual jobs are paid half of what men earn in disaster-prone coastal regions (Sarkar, 2020). However, women are still eager to work due to their poor economic condition.
Gender-Based Adaptation, Livelihood, and Resilience
Since the early 21st century, the discussion of adaptation has reached an advanced stage in which adaptation barriers receive more attention (Biesbroek et al., 2013). These barriers are work as constraints to make plan and implement adaptation actions. (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014), and they may deter households from adopting effective adaptation strategies to cope with the challenges that emerge from disasters (Bryan et al., 2012). These barriers may include age, gender, educational level, wealth of a household head, and access to credit and extension services (Deressa et al., 2009). The increase in disasters affects the ability of poor women to resist, cope, and recover. Key reasons for this include economic inequality (Cannon, 2002) and differences in economic freedom experienced by women as opposed to men. Noneconomic factors (e.g., social or cultural) are also significant. Disparity due to social positions and gender relations also affects the adaptation strategies employed by women and men in agriculture-based economies.
However, it has been documented that women are the silent or invisible forces of resilience, and they play a significant role in their households’ sustenance in different phases of disaster (Nasreen, 1995, 2019). For example, women in disaster-affected regions adopt several mitigation and adaptation strategies for reducing risks, protecting assets, and ensuring livelihood security. Women cope and adapt with disasters through practicing traditional or contemporary alternative livelihood activities. Gender-assigned activities of women become intensified as they have to shoulder men’s responsibilities to cope and adapt with the challenges caused by a disaster. Yet despite their suffering, women show considerable ingenuity in coping with disasters: they cook, clean, collect drinking water, adjust consumption patterns, draw from savings, network, dispose of assets, and so on (Nasreen, 1995, 2019).
Recognition of women’s work is limited at the household level and they are not valued by the patriarchal social norms. Marginalized women—that is, those who are poor, lack access to rights, and are treated as less important—are viewed as less valuable and as available casual laborers in the agriculture sector. Men make most decisions in income-generating activities, such as agricultural activities and investment in farming, whereas women make decisions about daily household chores. More women are members of community organizations, such as nongovernmental organizations and private institutions, but decisions are articulated by men at the community and household level. Men generally speak on behalf of the collective in the community and have decision-making power. Women are seldom heard, and although they carry responsibilities that are equal to those of men, their work is not considered as valuable (Zaman, 2018).
Livelihoods in rural Bangladesh are dependent on agriculture. Therefore, the economic concept of livelihood needs to be understood in the disaster discourse. The concept can be found in monodisciplinary discussions by economists and geographers engaged in macrolevel economic and political relations of capitalism in postcolonial regions (Hoque et al., 2018; Sarkar, 2020). A change in development approaches in the 1980s and 1990s shifted focus from economic growth to overall human well-being and sustainable development and propelled the discussion on livelihood issues (De Haan & Zoomers, 2005). Chambers and Conway’s (1992) publication Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century provided a clear definition of “livelihood”:2
A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and access) and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the next generation; and which contributes net benefits to other livelihoods at the local and global levels and in the short and long term.
Substantial literature was developed on livelihood and adaptation, but the work on these related concepts developed separately. The livelihood concept was generally discussed in close connection with poverty and development analysis, whereas adaptation was discussed in the context of climate change. However, in recent years, both concepts gained prominent importance in research on global environmental change (Sarkar, 2020).
In Bangladesh, most of the rural people work in agriculture, and both women and men are actively involved in agricultural production for family sustenance. However, women are not considered to be “farmers,” even though they perform the majority of subsistence agricultural tasks in addition to their gender-assigned domestic work. Sustainable food production systems depend on implementation of resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, help maintain ecosystems, and strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change and disasters. Researchers have noted that women’s livelihoods are often termed “resilient” due to their home-based year-round activities, such as storing seeds and other essentials, applying indigenous knowledge in homestead gardening, and cultivating fish stocks in water-logged ditches in an around the homestead (International Centre for Climate Change and Development, 2020; Nasreen, 2015). Nasreen (2019) suggested that women in different agroecological zones are involved in several activities to maintain their family sustenance.
In disaster-prone areas, women are involved in available profitable income-generating activities, such as floating vegetable production, vermin compost, homestead gardening, fish culture, and collective cultivation in coastal regions referred to as “fish-chicken-vegetable” production.3 They are also involved in tending livestock (sheep, milk cows, pigeons); fishing; and cultivating paddy, wheat, corn, mustard, irri, and amon rice. In the coastal belt, shrimp cultivation and agriculture had been the occupation for the majority of the population since the 1990s. However, following cyclones Sidr (2007) and Aila (2009), they had to adapt with alternative livelihoods as their usual endeavors, such as agriculture and shrimp culture, were destroyed, especially due to salinity intrusion, which intensified after these two cyclones. Women are also involved in homestead agriculture, crab cultivation, poultry raising, tailoring, sheep rearing, small business, producing saline tolerant rice, rainwater harvesting, vermin composting, pitcher irrigation, crop production strategizing, and so on (Nasreen, 2018). However, many of these activities go largely unrecognized or are unaccounted for as they are perceived as women’s gender-assigned activities. Improving the perception of these activities requires adequate support from governmental and other bodies.
How the System Addresses Gender and DRR
Disasters such as flood, cyclone, tornado, drought, river erosion, and salinity intrusion have become a major concern for most of the people in Bangladesh. Since 2004, with the launching of Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP), disaster management in Bangladesh has been conceptualized with a shift in paradigm from reactive measures to a proactive integrated risk reduction approach. The DRR mechanism of preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery has become an integral part of disaster-prone countries around the world. Policies, legislation, and frameworks have been developed for achieving the set goals of DRR. Bangladesh is no exception in shifting from a relief-based response to multifaceted dimensions of DRR in alignment with international drivers. Given its unique geographical features and anthropogenic climate change, the country is vulnerable to meteorological, hydrological, and geological hazards. In the Global Climate Risk Index of 2019, Bangladesh ranked seventh among the countries most affected by extreme climate events in the 20 years since 1998.
Bangladesh started undertaking disaster preparedness activities immediately following independence, with the establishment of the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation in 1972 and the launch of a Cyclone Preparedness Programme that developed higher ground (popularly known as Mujib Killa) to protect people and livestock. However, effective measures for institutionalization of the early initiatives to manage and prepare for floods, cyclones, and other disasters were only implemented fairly recently. The devastation caused by two consecutive floods in 1987 and 1988 and a severe cyclone in 1991 attracted international attention and raised awareness of the country’s inadequate disaster management system. Since 2009, significant changes occurred in the policy environment and institutional structure of Bangladesh. The paradigmatic shift in disaster management initiatives received international recognition, and Bangladesh became a role model for disaster management.
Significant national planning documents that addressed disaster management include the Seventh Five Year Plan (2016–2020; with a background document on DRR and climate change adaptation) and the Delta Plan 2100 (to address flood, cyclone, river erosion, and other relevant problems). Other initiatives are committed to achieving the UN’s SDGs and SFDRR objectives. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief (MoDMR) and its Department of Disaster Management are responsible for implementing and coordinating DRR initiatives in Bangladesh. The MoDMR has developed some vital policy and regulatory frameworks for disaster management, including the following: the National Plan for Disaster Management (2010; revised in 2016); the Standing Orders on Disaster (SOD, developed in 1997; revised in 2010 and 2019); the Disaster Management Act (2012); the Disaster Management Policy (2015); and the National Earthquake Contingency Plan. The ministry has taken the initiative in emphasizing both structural and nonstructural DRR activities in disaster-affected regions, such as improving cyclone and flood forecasting, increasing the number of multipurpose cyclone and flood shelters, constructing houses for the vulnerable, improving roads and communication networks, and making other infrastructure improvements.
Several projects and programs have been implemented to address issues related to DRR in Bangladesh: the National Resilience Program (MoDMR et al., 2019), which focuses on inclusive resilience with special emphasis on gender and disability; the Emergency Multisector Rohingya Crisis Response project; a special program for DRR and food security for pregnant and lactating mothers and children younger than five; and a National Emergency Operation Center. The Standing Order on Disasters (SOD), launched in 1997, has been revised two more times: in 2010 and 2019. In the latest SOD (2019) experts from several sectors, such as water resources, climate change, earthquake, disaster management, and gender and social inclusion have been included. The experts will work as members of the National Disaster Management Advisory Committee (NDMAC) side by side with government, parliamentarians, non-government, civil society and private actors. The author is supporting the NDMAC since 2009 and since 2019 as expert on gender and social inclusion. The National Disaster Management Council is led by the prime minister and includes ministers from 13 relevant ministries.
Gender is recognized as a major issue that should be integrated into all disaster risk management policies, plans, and decision-making processes, including risk assessment, early warning, information management, and education and training. The 2021–2025 National Plan for Disaster Management (NPDM 2020) takes an inclusive approach. Section 4.4, Inclusion as an Underlying Strategy, notes:
“Social inclusion is a basis for achieving resilience and is an underlying and cross-cutting strategy in all the action plans of NPDM 2021-2025. All DRM initiatives, policies, programs and planning are to be inclusive with emphasis on two main areas:
To ensure incorporation of gender issues in decision making and ensure participation of women and men, girls and boys in all the priority actions of NPDM 2021-2025.
To ensure adequate considerations for people with vulnerabilities (e.g. single marital status, age, disability) in DRM policies and programs and across implementation of NPDM 2021-2025”.(NPDM 2020, p. 21)
The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs endorsed a section on women and children in disaster in the 2011 Women Development Policy. In addition, a Gender Toolkit on Disaster Management was prepared to educate the ministry’s national and local staff (Nasreen, 2014). The toolkit contains basic concepts on gender, disaster, hazard, risk, different types of disasters, preparedness, response and recovery in disaster situations, gender division of labor (pre, during, and post disaster situations), early warning, health, and other issues.
The 2013 Climate Change Gender Action Plan (Ministry of Environment and Forest & International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 2013) was based on the four main pillars of the 2009 Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP): food security, social protection, and health; comprehensive disaster management; infrastructure; and mitigation and low carbon development. Nasreen developed a gender approach on comprehensive disaster management and provided guidelines and a matrix for different stakeholders, especially the government, to mainstream gender and disasters in policy and regulatory frameworks. It has been pointed out that despite challenges, “women have also become more resilient to disasters and they demonstrate ingenuity in overcoming problems by drawing on indigenous knowledge, act as community mobilizers in disaster response and demonstrate diverse adaptation coping strategies and mechanisms such as moving to safer places, saving their assets, dietary adaptations, energy-saving techniques, adapting agricultural practices, and earning income” (Ministry of Environment and Forest & International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 2013, p. 53).
A revision of the BCCSAP will incorporate gender issues. Hasan et al. (2019) found that DRR in government is a recent phenomenon and became an area of focus in 2015. As per the SFDRR (2015–2030), the governments of member countries are responsible for ensuring the inclusive disaster management participation of all categories, including women, children, youth, and persons with disabilities, to address multihazard perspectives.4
Revision of vital documents by the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs ensures women’s participation in the disaster management activities (MoDMR, 2016). The Disaster Management Policy (2015) focused on involvement of persons with disabilities, field level practitioners, and children in DRR activities and recommended resources for women to increase their expertise in resourceful and productive activities. In the revised versions of the National Plan for Disaster Management (MoDMR, 2016 & 2020 and the Shelter Management Policy (MoDMR, 2015b) women representatives of their respective communities have been included, such as assigning a female ward commissioner to the disaster shelter management committee.
It is evident that women usually resist moving to permanent or temporary shelters even during severe disasters. There are many reasons for the denial, such as fear of losing household assets, violation of parda norms in overcrowded situations, lack of toilet facilities, and becoming victims of violence (Nasreen, 2008, 2019). The National Plan for Disaster Management (MoDMR, 2016), included provision of separate toilet facilities for women and accessible shelter for women and elderly people. Local government divisions and the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs were instructed to ensure separate facilities and fulfillment of gender-based needs during different phases of disasters. However, shelter security and privacy has not been guided with adequate measurement in the disaster management system. It is also evident that the early warning system in Bangladesh was not gender friendly or inclusive as the mode of information flow was inaccessible to many, especially to women and persons with disabilities, whose mobility is restricted. At a later stage, the Disaster Management Act (MoDMR, 2012) and Disaster Management Policy (MoDMR, 2015a) instructed the adoption of appropriate methods for disseminating early warning with particular focus on women and other vulnerable groups regarding publicity and practice of corresponding rights.
In the context of social safety net coverage, access to relief has been available for persons living below the poverty line, underprivileged groups, elderly people, women, and persons with disabilities. However, poor women’s access to relief in postdisaster situations has not been given due emphasis. National disaster management frameworks also focus on need-based rescue and rehabilitation programs, such as food for employment, vulnerable group feeding, test relief, employment generation for poor people as part of reconstruction, and restoration of income sources, with special priority to older people, women, and children. In postdisaster recovery planning, livelihood recovery programs must accommodate specific groups in the community, such as single female–headed households, single male–headed households, and persons with disabilities. Coordination mechanisms to promote interagency collaboration and gatekeeping to ensure nondiscrimination and location-specific relevance and appropriateness of recovery and reconstruction interventions are essential in these situations.
Persons with disabilities have been identified as one of the most vulnerable groups in society due to hindrance in access to resources, education, and health services. They also receive less attention in terms of healthcare in the family and in the community (Department for International Development [DFID], 2015). While approaches to disasters have highlighted how disasters and social structure make their situation worse, addressing the special needs of persons with disabilities has not been properly delineated in disaster research. Extreme climatic events, disasters, and social determinants, such as sociopolitical and economic drivers, exacerbate vulnerabilities of persons with disabilities (Cutter, 2001; Nasreen, 2008; Nasreen et al., 2016, 2021; Smith et al., 2012). Gender-related factors create a complex situation for persons with disabilities when they interact with disasters.
The UNISDR (2014) conducted a survey on persons with disabilities from an inclusive DRR perspective and found minimal participation in all of the 137 member countries surveyed. The survey found that 85.57% of persons with disabilities never participated in DRR mechanisms and were excluded from the decision-making process. Most (72.2%) did not take any personal preparedness measures (UNISDR, 2014). This was the basis for strengthening disaster and disability issues in the post-2015 agenda. Following the principles of the SFDRR, Bangladesh was the first to organize two successful international conferences on disability and disaster (2015 and 2018). The Dhaka Declaration 2015+1 also focused on gender and social inclusion. The National Resilience Program in Bangladesh was designed to emphasize gender and inclusive society in alignment with the SFDRR, and the humanitarian response to issues concerning persons with disabilities in Rohingya refugee camps had a similar focus (Chowdhury & Nasreen, 2020). Nasreen et al. (2021) indicated that efforts to incorporate gender issues were in line with the SFDRR and Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (GPDRR). There are lot of rooms for improvement in efforts to incorporate gender and disability inclusive disaster risk management.
Bangladesh has successfully coordinated efforts on disaster management with a variety of stakeholders, including development partners, international and national nongovernmental organizations, academia, and community-based organizations. Initiatives have been taken to develop partnerships with civilian organizations as well as private and nongovernmental groups to develop disaster reduction practices. The Bangladesh government has also included budgetary provisions to enhance the public–private partnership (National Alliance of Humanitarian Action Bangladesh, 2020).
The UN Development Programme launched the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP-I) in 2004 for institutionalizing disaster management systems. The second phase of CDMP (2010–2014) was supported by the UNDP, UK Aid, Aus Aid, DFID, the European Union, the Norwegian Embassy, and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), among others. Nongovernmental organizations and academic institutions provided policy advisory services. Networking of organizations in DRR efforts was also initiated and private sector stakeholders were gradually encouraged to support DRR activities.
Academic organizations have played a crucial role in the institutionalization of the CDMP’s DRR mechanisms. The author, for having PhD degree in disaster management in social sciences, given the responsibility of Project Director of the ‘Sociology-CDMP’ partnership project in 2008. Professionals with no background of disaster management were being trained with by the disaster management experts around the country under the project. The participants achieved Certificates and Diploma degrees. In 2009 the author has also been nominated as a member of the National Disaster Management Advisory Committee to represent the University of Dhaka (as per SOD structure).
Observing the needs of making more professionals in disaster management a formal Center for Disaster and Vulnerability Studies (CDVS) was established at the University of Dhaka. With the support of CDMP the center provided professional trainings to the government officials, non-government actors and graduates who would like to develop their careers as disaster managers. The CDVS provided Diploma and Professional Master degrees to professionals. As the center was established within the department of Sociology and the demand for the degree from professionals and students was increasing day by day, a distinct academic space was required for the discipline. (As a result, the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies [IDMVS] in 2012) moving all the academic activities of CDVS in the IDMVS. Gender and DRR has been a central theme of the courses offered by the institute. In 2017, a Gender and Disaster Network (GDN) was launched at the IDMVS. The GDN Bangladesh country hub was launched in 2018 at IDMVS with the support of UN Women, and is the first of its kind in South Asia. During the formation of GDN Government officials of the MoDMR and Ministry of Women and Children Affairs participated, along with academics, representatives from development partners, and nongovernmental organizations.
In 2020 ‘Gender Responsive Resilience and Intersectionality in Policy and Practice (GRRIPP) South Asia’, a four-year global collaboration and knowledge-exchange project, launched at IDMVS. The project started through signing a memorandum of understanding between University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR), University College London (UCL), United Kingdom. GRRIPP-South Asia aims to bring together theory, policy and practice to promote a gender-responsive approach to disaster management and development. GRRIPP South Asia is awarded to IDMVS as part of activity of Gender and Disaster Network, Bangladesh Country Hub. GRRIPP Networking Plus Partnering for Resilience is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund. Professor The author (the winner of Mary Fran Myers Gender and Disaster Network Award, 2016 and a Visiting Professor of UCL IRDR), is the Regional Lead of GRRIPP South Asia Region.
Although Bangladesh has made significant progress in developing programs and legislation related to DRR, gender-specific contributions of women and men living in different agro-ecological zones are yet to receive adequate focus. While gender issues are receiving attention in the disaster management efforts of various actors, specific efforts are yet to be offered in a systematic manner. This should improve as development partners continue to support government efforts to integrate gender sensitivity and gender-related services into its disaster and climate change adaptation responses.
The livelihoods of people living in unique geophysical regions in Bangladesh would benefit from experience-sharing mechanisms. Studies by Nasreen (2015) and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (2020) recorded several gender-specific livelihood adaptation strategies practiced in regions prone to flood, cyclone, drought, and increased salinity that could be disseminated and implemented in other regions but require adequate financial resources. It is evident that most of these resilient livelihoods are project based and short lived due to a lack of adequate resources. As adaptation is time bound and requires monetary support, concerted long-term programmatic efforts are essential for sustainable resilient livelihoods in disaster-prone regions.
Gender in Pandemic
The 21st century has experienced major infectious disease, epidemics, and the Covid-19 pandemic. In light of this, the disaster management systems of vulnerable countries should be revisited. A case study of cyclone Amphan, which occurred in the Indian Ocean in May 2020, offers a good example of a disaster event that affected a vulnerable area during the pandemic.
The informal sector suffered more than others in Bangladesh, and most women in the country work in that sector. A number of women entrepreneurs were forced to close their businesses, and their purchasing ability was limited due to price hikes or lack of revenue generation during the pandemic. This was an unfortunate impediment to women’s empowerment (Gender and Development Alliance, 2020). Challenges of poor women and destitute, vulnerable, landless, and marginalized communities in hazardous areas were exacerbated by the triple threat of cyclone, flooding, and Covid-19. Government data indicated that prompt, effective, and coordinated measures taken by the government and other stakeholders supported the evacuation and relocation of 2.4 million people to secure shelters (MoDMR, 2020). In addition, precautions were taken to maintain social distancing in the cyclone shelters, where food, medical services, and seeds and other agricultural products were distributed. However, despite these efforts, gender-specific suffering was evident, including child marriages.
The BAPPD (2020) reported that the situation of women becomes worse during any emergency. All humanitarian personnel are responsible for notifying authorities about gender-based violence, and the government has to treat it as a serious and life-threatening issue. Actions must be taken to minimize gender-based violence risk through sectoral interventions, regardless of the presence or absence of concrete “evidence.”
Projections for the impact of Covid-19 indicated an increase in harmful practices, lack or absence of health support, lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities, child marriage, and gender-based violence (BAPPD, 2020; Nasreen, 2020; UNFPA, 2020; UN Women, CARE, and Oxfam, 2020). It has also been reported that access to relief healthcare and other public services significantly reduces for women and girls, particularly for women in disaster-prone regions, pregnant women, adolescent girls, women with disabilities, and elderly women. Antenatal and neonatal care services were disrupted in 64% of monsoon flood–affected regions in 2020. Reports received from flood affected unions (lowest tier of the local government structure of Bangladesh) mentioned that during cyclone Amphan safety measures for women and girls were ensured in the cyclone shelters. The impact of Covid-19 on interventions deferred reductions in child marriage and put adolescent girls at high risk with insufficient access to sexual and reproductive health management. Gender-based referral services such as taking legal aid for violence, reproductive health care or other social services from different organizations did not function as almost all the services were concentrated to Covid 19 related health services. Although there were difficulty operating any service at full capacity in Covid circumstances. In general, women’s access to healthcare facilities in rural Bangladesh are limited, and it worsens during disasters and other emergencies (Nasreen et al., 2014). Therefore, ensuring primary, reproductive, and other healthcare facilities to women and children during disaster and pandemic requires immediate attention and intervention.
The theme of the 2020 International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction was #It’s All About Governance#, which indicates more research on disaster risk governance is required with broader understanding of risk reduction mechanisms for reducing, preventing, and measuring risk as well as mitigation and adaptation to climate change (Hossain, 2020). It would support disaster-affected women, help to develop resilience and sustainable livelihoods, and contribute to government policies.5 Implementation of integrated policies and plans toward social inclusion, with special emphasis on gender, persons with disabilities, and indigenous and marginal groups living in remote locations from holistic and intersectional perspectives are major requirements for good governance in disaster- and pandemic-related risk management at all levels.
Bangladesh experiences frequent disasters, of which floods and cyclones are the most common. Disasters cause suffering for millions of people and affect women and men differently. Women in gendered cultures face vulnerabilities more than men due to their identity and gender-assigned roles. Performing domestic activities, such as cooking, cleaning, collecting water and fuelwood, caring for children and elderly relatives, and tending livestock and poultry, becomes much more difficult in disaster situations. Women and girls often face gender-based violence and sexual harassment both at home and in disaster shelters or refuge. However, women play significant roles in protecting family members and resources and adopt alternative arrangements to maintain family sustenance. Although women are identified as vulnerable in most cases, studies indicate that they play crucial roles in different phases of disasters and therefore become forces of resilience. Through their experience in living with disasters and indigenous coping mechanisms, women have developed sustainable adaptation practices, which are often overlooked.
Climate change has aggravated climate-induced hazards, and governments of disaster-prone countries recognize that individuals’ initiatives and coping strategies are not sufficient for facing the adverse impacts of disasters. Significant investment and reliable institutions offer crucial protection, early warning systems, and resources for disaster relief and recovery. Many responses are gender neutral, but the government is willing to consider gender-sensitive responses in its future activities. Policies and legal frameworks have been formulated to equip the government machinery for reducing the risks of disasters and climate change.
The Women’s Major Group has pointed out that the SFDRR repeats the gender perspective in all its policies and practices and addresses gender needs in multihazard early warning systems, but it takes the agenda forward by focusing on the critical role of women in designing, resourcing and implementing gender-sensitive DRR policies, plans and programmes.6 Women’s leadership roles in DRR are mentioned in at least three separate places in the SFDRR: all-of-society engagement and partnership, equitable and universally accessible response, recovery rehabilitation and reconstruction approaches; and capacity building for alternate livelihood means.Bangladesh is stepping up to achieve the objectives of national drivers focusing on key factors of international frameworks, such as the SFDRR, the UN SDGs, and the Paris Agreement.
However, implementing agendas of different national and international policies, including achieving goals of sustainable development, requires a focus on the political economy of climate change. Providing gender-sensitive financing through access to adequate resources and strengthening gender-specific involvement of women will also contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment. It will also help to improve the outcomes of climate objectives.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taught new lessons, posing threats to existing risk reduction systems. In 2020, Bangladesh faced several disasters: cyclone Amphan and floods. Responding to these disasters was critically challenging for the government and nongovernmental actors. The world community provided support after the cyclone and focused on social distancing to minimize exposure to the virus and health, hygiene, and security in overcrowded cyclone shelters. The MoDMR had to make an immediate decision to increase the number of cyclone shelters, even using academic institutions that were closed during the pandemic as makeshift shelters.
The rapid response to Bangladesh’s situation in 2020 can provide lessons for more effective disaster management. Timely, well-focused, and inclusive policies and programs are important tools for disaster risk governance. To meet the challenges of disaster recovery requires extensive research with scientific reasoning, technology-supported risk management processes, and engagement with multiple stakeholders, including the private sector and media at national and local levels. Like environmental impact assessment, disaster impact assessment should be part of an innovative and accountable approach for dealing with disasters and other environmental issues.
The Bangladesh government’s DRR process is integral to policy strategies, planning, infrastructure, livelihoods, and broader economic and social development strategies. Mainstreaming DRR through an effective governance process in Bangladesh ensures that the affected populations are being protected and that the DRR agenda does not increase existing and future levels of natural hazard risk. Engaging women and encouraging them to take on leadership and decision-making roles within the national and local platforms and in disaster risk management institutions is important for the success of these programs. Budgetary allocations and other resources are prerequisites to achieving the goal of total society engagement and partnership and enabling the success of an intersectional gendered approach to risk reduction, response, and recovery initiatives.
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1. In Bangladesh, tidal bores are observed in the Meghna estuary and other southern coastal areas in the months of April and May and between September and December. It is also known as tidal surge, which is associated with cyclone. When tidal surge coincides with cyclone, loss of life and property becomes more severe.
2. “A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and access) and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the next generation; and which contributes net benefits to other livelihoods at the local and global levels and in the short and long term” (Chambers and Conway, 1992).
3. Women in the char areas are involved in income-generating activities, such as homestead agriculture (vegetable cultivation), chicken rearing, and a collective vegetable cultivation, which they refer to as “fish-chicken-vegetable” production (Nasreen, 2019).
4. “Multihazard” is used throughout the SFDRR, but there is currently no clear definition provided by the UNISDR. The latest draft of terminology only includes a definition for a “multi-hazard early warning system,” which is a very specific application of multihazard methodologies. The term “multihazard” is used regularly in three ways: (a) the overlay of single hazards (i.e., hazards are discrete and independent); (b) the identification of all hazards in a place; and (c) the identification of all hazards in a place and the interactions that may occur between them (i.e., hazards have interrelations). See online.
5. A resilient livelihood is one that enables people to anticipate, organize for, and adapt to change—good or bad, sudden or slow. To achieve it, women and men must be able to feed, clothe, house, educate, and care for themselves and their families with dignity as well as cope successfully with disasters. For this they need safeguards in case of crisis, such as early warning systems, safe housing, and food stocks (Christian Aid, 2012).
6. The Women’s Major Group (WMG) was created at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where governments recognized women as one of the nine important groups in society for achieving sustainable development. The WMG is an official participant in the United Nations processes on Sustainable Development. Other processes use the major group or similar systems, with the WMG active in the processes of the United Nations Environment Program since 1996. The Women’s Major Group has the responsibility to facilitate women’s civil society active participation, information sharing and input into the policy space provided by the United Nations (e.g., participation, speaking, submission of proposals, access to documents, development of sessions). The WMG is self-organised and open to all interested organisations working to promote human rights-based sustainable development with a focus on women’s human rights, the empowerment of women and gender equality. WMG