Developing Differently to Build Adaptive Capacity of Women in Bangladesh

By Carina Bachofen

Last year marked the three-year anniversary of Cyclone Sidr, which ravaged the southern coast of Bangladesh and claimed the lives of 3,500 people. Loss of life was exacerbated by loss of development potential as the fierce storm decimated the mud and thatch homes of countless families, destroyed key infrastructure, and damaged productive land, leaving millions of poor individuals more vulnerable to climate change than ever before. In the wake of Cyclone Sidr, questions were raised about how to build resilience to climate change without compromising national development goals. So now, more than three years later, is Bangladesh developing differently? What lessons can be learned from the Bangladeshi experience to reframe development and climate action as mutually supportive objectives?

One can consider these questions and measure development progress from several angles. As climate change affects men and women differently, understanding the gender dimensions of climate change can provide valuable clues for designing development interventions that build resilience to climate impacts, and are effective and equitable for all.

Gender-based inequalities in socio-economic, political and cultural norms often heighten the sensitivity of particular groups of women in Bangladesh to the impacts of climate change. For example, in the aftermath of Cyclone Sidr, poor women whose husbands or fathers had perished in the disaster had little or no access to the credit needed for recovery due to gender-based restrictions on legal rights and entitlements to land and property. Many of these socio-economic norms still hold true today. Similarly, while Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in building cyclone shelters to protect local populations, some of these remain illequipped to accommodate women and girls. Separate toilet facilities and privacy for women are often lacking, resulting in women forced to use latrines only once a day during times of crises.

In other cases, adaptation preferences conditioned by social factors have been found to actually perpetuate vulnerability for some women in Bangladesh. For example, while the custom of early marriage in Bangladesh may appear to be completely disconnected from climate change, some research results reveal that during extreme weather events, many poor families chose to marry off their daughters in order to ensure her security and reduce their household expenses. The groom’s family can benefit as well: they may receive ready access to the wife’s dowry, which provides valuable assets to buffer against climate shocks. As this practice can offer immediate gains for those involved, some families consider marriage as an effective adaptation strategy.

However, in the long term, this practice is in fact maladaptive. Why? Because over time, due to cultural norms, the young bride may face limited opportunities for obtaining education and likely to become pregnant early and suffer poor maternal health. As education and good health are vital components of strong adaptive capacity, these consequences ultimately render the girl more vulnerable in the long-term.

Notably, Bangladesh has made significant progress in reducing disaster risk and improving disaster response. While Cyclone Bhola in 1991 killed 140,000 people, the death toll inflicted by Cyclone Sidr in 2007 was substantially lower. However in both instances, the large majority of victims were women. While Bangladesh provides an encouraging example of effective planning to deal with increased exposure to climate risk, it also highlights the challenges that remain to reducing the sensitivity of women in particular.

Securing equal rights and resources for women has long been recognized as crucial for achieving sustainable development. As climate change is an additional stress that threatens to exacerbate the development challenge in Bangladesh, designing development interventions that address the ways in which climate change impacts men and women differently becomes all the more imperative. Development policy that offers co-benefits with climate policy and focuses on minimizing intersecting inequalities between men and women will be necessary for women to escape poverty and build resilience to manage future climate risks.