The unheard stories of unbeaten spirit from the coast of Bangladesh: Does COP21 hear us?

Shaila Shahid, Gender and Water Alliance-Bangladesh

Jamila Begum, 42, a widow who lost her husband during cyclone Aila more than six years ago is still living in a makeshift home on the embankment of Shyamnagar Upazila in the Satkhira district on the southern coast of Bangladesh. She used to work as a day labourer in a shrimp enclosure or as a household help in solvent homes to survive.

Jamila summed up her life, “I do not have any brother. So I tried to provide necessary support to my mother and a young daughter with little income that I make. We barely had enough to eat two meals a day and a roof over our head,”she added, “all was taken away by the Aila”. Jamila is among thousands of others who have lost everything in cyclone Aila that hit the South Western Part of Bangladesh on May 25 2009.

Reliving the day, Jamila said, “Wind was really strong, we all went to the cyclone shelter except my husband who was away with other fisherman to protect the shrimping equipment. My house was washed away along with everything in it. Everything I had was gone.”Describing the damage by the cyclone she said, “I heard that 51 people died in our union. Everyone lost their homes, crops and livestock with beloved members of the family. We lived under the open sky for days. But nobody remembers us and our stories never reach the higher people”.  

Cyclones and floods are no strangers to the coastal people of Bangladesh where every disaster is accompanied by a renewed hardship. Yet there are still more than a few thousand families that continue to survive on the damaged embankment, which lets in salt water leading to regular fresh water crises in adjacent villages.

Bangladesh is recognised as a country at high risk of recurring climate induced disasters with an average 10 million people affected every year, the majority of them are poor women. If, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) predict, the country starts to experience more intense cyclones, storm surge, flooding and sea level rise, that will have a significant impact on the lives and livelihoods of up to 15 million people.

Recently the Bangladesh Government endorsed the Climate Change and Gender Action Plan, the seventh Five Year Plan and the ‘Delta Plan 2100’ where Gender and Water Programme of Bangladesh (GWAPB) provided technical inputs to systematically address gender issues in policy planning. The position of women in Bangladesh policy frameworks is mixed and a huge gap between theory and practice exist. The global scenario is not different when it comes to prioritising the gender agenda in the climate negotiations, including COP 21. This is largely because the process of global consultations often follows a conventional approach that tends to overlook the tremendous contribution of women in rebuilding life. This perspective needs to be reversed to give women the proper acknowledgment they deserve. Although distinct progress has been made at policy level, links between gender and climate change impacts on disaster-prone communities, and their livelihoods remains tenuous in reality.

Up to now, global leaders have failed to adequately include women and gender issues at the core of their vision and mission. If climate change policy is about ensuring a sustainable future, it must take into account the gender dimension of climate change. More than men, women are the faces of resilience, actors and contributors at all levels of the society. Complete realisation of women’s sense of responsibility, their roles, and acknowledgement in relation to the natural resource base are vital in combating climate change, particularly in terms of adaptation, risk reduction and management. Empty promises are not going to solve the problem. The countries responsible for the climate crisis should bear the responsibility to curb over consumption patterns and provide grants to ensure climate justice – particularly for women’s empowerment and social transformation. COP21 needs to feel the urgency. This time we demand a legally binding agreement with clear identification of gender equality under climate finance, social protection and adaptation.