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Past In-depth
Climate Change induced Disasters and Gender Dimensions: Perspective Bangladesh
Rafiqul Islam
May 06, 2009
This paper attempts to focus on the theoretical aspect of gender and climate change. In addition, the paper looks into how specific gender characteristics increase women’s vulnerability and how the effects of climate change affect women more severely than men. This paper will, finally, look into policies to face the challenges and mainstream gender perspectives.

1. Introduction

No country is free from the overall impacts of climate change, but poor people of developing countries have been disproportionately affected by the adverse effects of climate change. The increasing changes of the climate intensify the problems in human security that the poor developing countries like Bangladesh are already facing. It is stated that 94 per cent of the world’s major natural disasters between 1990 and 1998 occurred in developing countries (Oxfam, 2000:1) while root causes lie in the global climatic changes.  It is widely accepted that women in developing countries, particularly Bangladesh, constitute one of the poorest and most disadvantaged groups in society. Poor women are seriously affected by climate change-induced environmental degradation and natural disasters in every developing and underdeveloped country. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that, ‘Climate change impacts will be differently distributed among different regions, generations, age classes, income groups, occupations, and genders’ (IPCC 2001).

Bangladesh is an ample example where the gender dimension is significant in analyzing climate change and the vulnerabilities of men and women. Access to, and effective control over, natural resources such as land, water, and forests, are important indicators of gender positions in Bangladesh where women are in a marginalized position in terms of use, control and utilization. This paper will, thus, try to investigate a few questions: Does climate change affects men and women differently? Why are women more prone to climate-induced environmental changes and disasters? And what copping strategies are urgently needed to address the increasing vulnerabilities of women?

2. Background of the paper

With a Gross National Income of US $599 per capita and a population density exceeding 1600 people per square mile (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 2008), Bangladesh is among the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world. Bangladesh is almost entirely alluvial floodplain, making it especially vulnerable to flooding disasters. Even in a normal year, up to half of Bangladesh is flooded, and more than ten million people live in areas of high risk, with landless, impoverished fishermen, and tenant farmers most exposed to natural hazards. Poverty and scarcity of land have forced millions of poor people to live in the vulnerable position who are adversely affected by climate change related disasters.

The Intergovernmnetal Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 4th Assessment Report (2007)  mentions that South Asia is badly affected by floods, sea-level rise exposing coasts to increasing risks, coastal erosion, human-induced pressures on coastal areas and glacier melt in the Himalayas. Crop yields could decrease up to 30 percent in Central and South Asia by the mid-21st century. Within South Asia, Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country because of its regional connectivity through geo-physical and hydrological features and its livelihood reliance on agriculture and trade (IPCC, 2007).

Bangladesh, in particular, will be threatened by devastating floods and other damage from monsoons, melting glaciers, and tropical cyclones that originate in the Bay of Bengal, as well as water contamination and ecosystem destruction caused by rising sea levels. The population of Bangladesh, which stands at 142 million today, is anticipated to increase by approximately 100 million people during the next few decades, even as the impact of climate change and other environmental factors steadily render the low-lying regions of the country uninhabitable (Joehnk, 2007; Barnett, 2001).

Tropical cyclones strike the coast at least once a year, bringing rainwater floods, salt-water incursions, and wind damage. Since the 1991 cyclone disaster, many cyclones and disasters have happened in Bangladesh. Due to these floods, cyclones and natural disasters poor people dependent on fishing, agriculture and others subsistence economic activities are prone to lose their livelihood and security.

The vulnerability of women in Bangladesh is much higher than men during these disasters due to their poverty, social norms, and their marginal position in the social system. National policies, institutional frameworks and adaptation measures are also responsible for placing women in vulnerable positions.

3. Theoretical Framework

There is little consensus among scholars regarding the direct effects of climate change and human vulnerability. However, climate induced disasters and environmental changes like floods, sea level rise, cyclones and others disasters are the direct cause of human insecurity and vulnerabilities. Barnett (2003) says, ‘climate change affects a whole host of areas, including habitats, wildlife, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and hence the production of goods and services, and livelihoods, which depend on these natural resources’ (Barnett, 2003). The low lying deltas in Bangladesh, in this context, are increasingly prone to different types of climate change induced disasters. The gender dimension is significant in analyzing climate change-induced vulnerabilities because women in Bangladesh interact more directly with their environmental resources like, land, water, agricultural production and household resources and are disproportionately adversely affected by environmental degradation. Climate change will result in severe adverse changes in soils, arid-lands, coastal zones, and tropical and boreal forests (Downing et al. 2000). Therefore, climate change induced environmental changes affect gender specifically where women are subordinate and subject to discrimination socially, economically and environmentally.

Gender and vulnerabilities is another issue to address when dealing with climate induced environmental changes. Vulnerabilities mean the incapacity of the community or states to mitigate the challenges posed by different types of natural disasters. According to Robert Watson, chair of the IPCC, ‘vulnerability’ can be defined as:

‘…the extent to which the natural or social system is susceptible to sustaining damage from climate change and is a function of the magnitude of climate change, the sensitivity of the system to changes in climate. Hence, a highly vulnerable system is one that is highly sensitive to modest changes and one for which the ability to adapt is severely constrained.’ (Olmos 2001, 3)


Bangladesh is a poor country with adverse ecological, environmental and geophysical conditions. The state’s incapability to form a balance between the growing population and natural resources has positioned the country in a vulnerable position. Vulnerability can comprehensively be analyzed on the basis of five components: namely, the initial conditions of a person, the resilience of their livelihood, their opportunities for self-protection, and their access to social protection and social capital (Cannon 2000; Blaikie et al. 1994). Women in Bangladesh do not have proper and equal access to these basic components, which places woman in more vulnerable position then men. Poverty, social position and established religious norms and values act as a hindrance to overcome these fault-finding positions. Women’s house hold roles (overburden in the family activities) and socio-economic conditions are also responsible for setting them into the fragile situations of climate induced environmental disasters.

4. Climate Change and Women Vulnerabilities: Analysis

The climate has pushed women into a vulnerable and marginalized position in Bangladesh. For the analytical purpose, I have already mentioned that climate change itself does not directly affect the women, but the disasters and socially constructed system have made the situation possible where climate change plays a key role in instigating the vulnerabilities. Aspects of gender specific vulnerabilities are:

4.1. Nutrient Capacity and women’s health

Women’s health is a factor to sustain in climate induced changes. Women of all ages are more calorie-deficient than men, and the prevalence of chronic energy deficiency among women is the highest in the world (del Ninno et al. 2001). Poor health and caloric deficiency make women vulnerable during climate indeed catastrophes. Women also receive less and poorer-quality healthcare in comparison with men. Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world where men live longer than women and where the male population outnumbers the female (Asian Development Bank 2001). These conditions have complicated women’s adoptive capability and capacity to cope with disasters and other adverse climatic changes. For example, the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh killed 138,000 people, many of whom were women and older than 40 years (Cannon, 2002:49).

4.2 Women’s domestic burden and increased hardship

Like many other traditional societies, women in Bangladesh are involved in domestic household as well as farming activities to lead their livelihood. However, climate induced environmental and socio-economic changes have increased their burden and hardship. There is evidence that floods increase women’s domestic burden. The loss of utensils and other household essentials is a great hardship, and floods also undermine women’s well-being in general because of their dependence on economic activities linked to the home (Khondker 1996). Losses of harvest and livestock have a disproportionate impact on women, many of whom rely on food processing, cattle, and chickens for their cash income. Fetching water becomes much more difficult, and the water they fetch may be contaminated. Water-borne illness might be expected to be more widespread among women, who are nutritionally disadvantaged. Women are likely to suffer increased mental strain, and bear the brunt of certain social constraints; for instance, they are shamed by using public latrines, or being seen by men when in wet clothing (Rashid and Michaud 2000). The social and institutional barrier of women’s mobility also keeps them in vulnerable positions as they do not move easily to find a livelihood or way of life.

4.3.Women’s reduced ability to provide self-protection

Poverty is a key factor affecting people’s ability to provide adequate self-protection during disasters. Poverty leads to poor women and men being unable to make choices that might improve their socio-economic conditions, and protect natural resources (Dankelman, 2002: 12). According to statistics, more than 45 per cent of people live under the poverty line, where 30 per cent live under absolute poverty (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistic, 2008). An Asian Development Bank report suggested that over 95 per cent of female-headed households are below the poverty line (Asian Development Bank 2001). Poverty engulfs both men and women but women are most affected due to their position, role, and attachment to the environment. The quality of housing, a location on raised ground, adequate storage for food – all are crucial to self protection, but are more difficult for poor women to achieve. During cyclones, women are handicapped by fear of the shame attached to leaving the house and moving in public. Societal attitudes restrict interaction between men and women, making women more reluctant to congregate in the public cyclone shelters (raised concrete structures that protect from wind and flood) where they are forced to interact with other men.

Women’s mobility is restricted as a result of their responsibility for their children and extreme love of family. Their clothing restricts their mobility in floods, and in addition, women are less likely than men to know how to swim. It is estimated that 90 per cent of the victims of the 1991 cyclone disasters were women and children (Schmuck 2002). Socially constructed roles and responsibilities are also responsible for their vulnerability.

4. 4. Religious and social dogma

A large majority of the Bangladeshi people are of the Muslim faith, which presents several religious practices and beliefs that have placed both men and women in vulnerable positions before, during and following the event. Data indicates that Bangladeshi women are reluctant to enter shelters typically utilized by men (such as madrassas) or where men and women will be in close physical contact (Cannon, 2002). Women are more inclined to use shelters when families evacuate together, or when shelters allow for male and female separation. Nelson et al. cite the example of how a disproportionate number of women died in the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh because of cultural norms concerning the preservation of female honor that meant they left it too late to leave their homes, and were less likely than men to know how to swim (Masika, 2002:5).

4.5. Lack of education 

Lower levels of education reduce the ability of women and girls to access information, including early warning mechanisms and resources, or to make their voices heard. This is an extra challenge when women want to look for their livelihood strategies. Education does not necessarily mean formal education, but knowledge about technology, information, access to information and others means of knowledge. In remote costal areas, and many rural areas, people seldom get access to information or education opportunities and women are even more vulnerable and deprived due to their economic and social restrictions.

4.6. Unequal power relation

Unequal power relations between women and men lead to different access to environmental resources and opportunities for income diversification, entailing that environmental vulnerability, and indeed security, affect women and men differently. Women in Bangladesh get less opportunity in the decision making process and access to resources to shape their own future development. Therefore, environmental changes badly affect them, particularly poor women, as they do not have any means to face and mitigate challenges imposed by hazards. 

5. Lessons

From the analysis the following are the major concerns for women’s vulnerability due to climate induced natural and environmental changes

  • Post-disaster mortality, injury, and illness rates which are often (but not universally) higher for girls and women;
  • Economic losses that disproportionately impact economically insecure women (e.g. agricultural losses of women farmers, the destruction of women’s home-based businesses, limited access to post-disaster economic aid);
  • Work load changes increase women’s responsibilities in the domestic sphere, paid workplace, and community through the disaster cycle of  preparation, relief, reconstruction, and mitigation;
  • Increased rates of sexual and domestic violence against girls and women in disaster contexts because women lead their life in most insecure position during and after disasters.
  • Destitute, low-income, and economically insecure women face the most adverse conditions because they lose their works and livelihood during and after disasters
  • Women in subordinated racial/ethnic/cultural groups are placed in vulnerable situations having less scope and opportunities to face and mitigate the challenges.

 6. Policy Recommendation

Gender inequalities are the normal phenomenon in Bangladeshi society. Poverty, social and economic position has constructed this unequal and adverse situation in society for a long period of time. Climate-induced environmental changes and destruction perpetuate this existing vulnerability for women due to the lack of access to land, control over resources, ability to command and access paid labor, capacity, and strategies for income diversification. Therefore, proper policies are immediate and need to address the climate induced environmental changes and ensure gender equality. The following recommendations are important considerations for reducing women’s vulnerability from climate-induced disasters and environmental destruction:

  • Legal and structural barriers need to be overturned in order to encourage and promote equitable access to land and resources, boost productivity, and manage environmental and soil conservation.
  • Landlessness is forcing women to adopt other income-generation activities to complement their earnings. So, women’s access to land is essential to improve their livelihood.
  • For women who lack the education to filter through the different channels of bureaucracy to take advantage of credit facilities and employment prospects, communal resources may be all they have at their disposal so it is important to support a comprehensive gendered research agenda to identify in specific contexts the immediate needs and long-term interests of disaster-vulnerable women;
  • Generating sex-disaggregated data for community vulnerability and capacity assessments;
  • Engaging women from vulnerable social groups as full and equal partners in community-based disaster planning and ‘nonstructural’ mitigation initiatives;
  • Developing gender and disaster materials for use in cross-training representatives from women’s organizations and disaster organizations;
  • Increasing awareness about gender bias in disaster practice, e.g. through training, planning guidelines, recruitment and retention of gender-aware staff, and mechanisms for professional accountability of gender issues;
  • Supporting regular gender audits to identify factors increasing and decreasing gender bias in the culture, policy, and practice of institutions and organizations with disaster response missions;
  • Government has initiated a national committee to face climate change induced disasters. Gender equality can help women to understand and face the future challenges.

7. Conclusion

Women are more vulnerable to climate disasters than men through their socially constructed roles and responsibilities, and their relatively poorer and more economically vulnerable position, especially in the developing world like Bangladesh. Gender inequalities with respect to enjoyment of human rights, political and economic status, land ownership, housing conditions, and exposure to violence, education and health (in particular reproductive and sexual health) -- make women more vulnerable before, during and after climate change-induced disasters. Therefore, access to land, improve livelihood, proper access to information and education, community development among women, self dependence and women increased participation in decision making must be ensured in Bangladesh to face climate change and different disasters induced from climate change.


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Md. Rafiqul Islam is an MA student in Environment, Security and Peace at the University for Peace, Costa Rica, and Assistant Professor, Deptarment of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.