Bangladesh is a country that faces a variety of natural disasters, overpopulation, poverty and other adversities that challenge the lives and livelihoods of its people. Women face the brunt of these hardships, because of the socio-economic differences and inequalities that are prevalent, alongside the impacts of disasters and climate change, especially in drought, flood, and coastal areas. Over the last 30 years, many more women have died in natural disasters than men, due to their lower economic status, lack of social capital, and lack of disaster preparedness. As climate change impacts continue to rise, greater numbers of women in Bangladesh will be affected, more frequently. With these considerations, the government of Bangladesh established the Union Disaster Management Committee, based on the Standing Order of Disasters, in 2010, established to carry out disaster management activities as preventative actions, mitigation measures, and preparedness activities. As automatic members of the UDMC from the Union Parishad, women play complex roles in the activities of the committee, ensuring that there are representatives of women in the community within a disaster management body in each area of Bangladesh.
This study aimed to understand the participation, perceptions, and knowledge of differentiated impacts of disasters and disaster risk reduction on women and men. It found that women’s socio-economic status, their understanding of their own capabilities, gender biases, and cultural and religious barriers in society restrict opportunities for women to participate and contribute in positive ways to the activities, especially field-based ones, of the UDMC. The study was conducted in ten upazillas of ten districts in Bangladesh, with two UDMCs studied in each upazilla. Out of the 140 targeted personnel, 134 personnel were interviewed, of which 53 were male, including chairmen, government officers and NGO workers, and 81 were female members. One of these women was the chairman of her UDMC, two were government officials and three were NGO workers. The rest of the female respondents were general members and vulnerable women representatives.
A majority of the interviewed respondents agreed that men and women are impacted differentially and that it was vitally important that women take active roles in the UDMCs.
Women, especially in the more conservative areas of Bangladesh need an outlet and supportive body where they can share their health, hygiene and reproductive problems, and it is imperative to provide them such outlets through active participation in the UDMCs. Women members can also assist other women in their unions to share their issues and concerns without hesitation.
Respondents also noted the need for women members to become more aware of climate change and disaster impacts, and how they can impact women differently than men. Awareness is critical for women in the community so that they can be prepared to face disaster situations without compromising themselves or their families and households. This awareness, respondents claimed, could only be provided to them by knowledgeable and active female members of a UDMC, through structured and highly experienced means.
Yet the study also found that there is a significant gap in the perceptions of the roles and responsibilities that women play in the UDMCs between male and female respondents. While a little more than half the women respondents mentioned that they play a role in distributing relief after disasters, a significant number of the chairmen and government officials said that women are involved in this process. This discrepancy can contribute to ideas that women are more involved than they really are, and that there is no need to empower female members further in playing more active roles and increasing their responsibilities in delivering support to their communities. It is also possible that women are likely less active in these tasks delivery as the leadership and more responsibilities are assigned to men.
The study further suggests that male counterparts seldom encourage women members to get actively involved in activities, although the larger portion of the male members interviewed expressed strong views in supporting women members. All female respondents iterated the importance of women members participating in activities such as disaster risk reduction planning, raising awareness, helping and aiding women, children, and the disabled, and in damage assessment activities post-disaster.
Conclusive data from the field findings show that the female members of the UDMCs across the study areas are, in most cases, not participating in the activities of the committee as the guideline prescribe. Participation for most women has come down to mere presence in the meetings, and most women do not voice their opinions in the proceedings of the meetings. The women who do raise suggestions and opinions explained that their words are seldom heeded, and eventually they stop raising their voices altogether. In addition, researchers in the field have witnessed and reported cases of intimidation from male members toward female members, and noted instances of misadministration in the participation of women members.
Yet, the study has also uncovered positive potential for future exploration, where women reported having active and comprehensive participation. There were UDMCs found in the field where women’s opinions were not only heeded but actively put into action, and male members encouraged further dynamic participation of their female counterparts.