Endless miseries haunt women victims of climate change
Saleha Khatun, 38, is a hawker, selling pens, hair bands and combs in the crowded Paltan area of the city. She was born in a village but now is struggling to cope with her urban life. Moreover, she is yet to master marketing skills to approach customers. A couple of months ago, she used to work as a domestic help but she lost her job when she fell sick in the last rainy season.
"My illness came at a high price. I lost my job. I do not feel good to sell things like a hawker but I have to do it to support my children," she said.
She migrated from Dacop upazila, under Khulna district, which was severely hit by the Sidr Aila in 2009 and after the storm the whole area turned in to a barren land due to extreme salinity.
Increased salinity in land forced us to migrate to Dhaka in the year of 2014 now we live in Mohammadpur slum, she said.
Taposi Barai, 60, an elderly woman, shares the same cruel fate. She is often spotted sitting alone under the open air of cold winter nights near the Shapla Chattar roundabout at Motijheel, carrying a plastic bag with whatever belongings she is left with.
Sometimes she joins the street urchins sitting in front of a small fire to get a little warmth in the winter in front of the City Centre building at Motijheel, praying quick arrival of the dawn sunlight.
Talking to the Daily Observer, she said that her ancestral home was in Bandra village, in Bhola district- under Charfasion upazila, a coastal area in south western part of Bangladesh and one of the most severe river erosion prone areas.
Her eyes sparkle in joy as she recalls her golden days. This correspondent remains spellbound, as if, she is listening to fairy tales. But then suddenly her sunny days comes to an end when river erosion snatches away her hut. Her village no longer exists and is under water.
Taposi's story is focused on the time before 2001, when her surroundings were in abundance with lush green crop fields, fish, birds and cattle - blessed with a picture perfect family, a husband, daughter and a son and her in laws.
Her husband, late Dhananjoy Barai, used to wake up early in the morning and go for fishing in the nearby river along with their kids.
But, things changed drastically, when we became helpless victims of river erosion in the year 1998, Taposhi said. Her story is not finished yet, after the river erosion she along with her family members migrated to Dhaka and found shelter at Karail Slum.
Later she was thrown away from the slum, as her only son was murdered because of engaging in drug peddling and her husband died before that as he had been suffering from cancer.
And she lost her last hope when her daughter Ratna Barai got married to a Muslim man and converted to Islam.
"I was not allowed to stay with my daughter as I did not convert into a Muslim. Now I spend my time chasing my fate, she can't help her tears flowing down while comparing her present with the past.
Like Saleha and Taposi, hundreds of women have become floating victims of climate change, seeking refuge in cities of Bangladesh. Even though, they are not responsible for their fate, they are evidently powerless in the face of climate induced natural disasters. Various research reports suggest: it is the women and children who are most vulnerable to climate change. While living in the slums, they are frequently affected by diarrhoea, dysentery and various skin diseases due to water logging in the rainy season. The shared kitchens and toilets of the slums are often flooded forcing them to remain confined. Such painful reality often results in losing their jobs.
Even worse, in most cases, women in the slums end up with risky and menial jobs with little pay.
Most men, living in Dhaka slums work as day labourers or rickshaw pullers. Women and girls mostly work as domestic help or in plastic or battery factories. However, the reason behind is not so much as their skills as is discriminatory social mindset resulting in the division of work and pay.
In addition, our city slums are extremely unhygienic. On the one hand, almost all slums are dirty and unliveable, while on the other, all are fertile grounds for breeding lethal deceases. The situation turns worst in the rainy season.
Realizing their sorry state, many experts and green activists demanded a fair justice to these victims from the government and also from the developed countries responsible for fast-tracking the adverse effects of climate change.
According to "Census of Slum Areas and Floating Population" conducted by BBS in 2014 the total number of slums in Dhaka city are more than five (5) thousand and about 4 million people live in those slums.
BARCIK, a research organization conducted a recent study titled "Slum People's Lives, Livelihood and Survival Strategies in Dhaka City" , showing how women lose their jobs as maid servant or as a factory worker due to their absence at workplace during rainy season.
Paval Partha, an environmentalist, said that women face the worst consequences of climate change and they have gone through a struggle that a man never experiences.
Basically they face twice such climatic catastrophe - At first in their villages or place of origin, and then at the city slums. Such back-to-back disasters drive women into an uncertain life resulting in immense harm in their conjugal lives, he said.
If I carefully examine the issue with the lens of climate justice, then I will tell women are more vulnerable than men in regards of occupation and social status.
"Because a woman and a girl very often is branded as "Bostir Kharap Mohila (Bad woman of the slum) while men are never branded so negatively," said Paval Partha, also a green activist.
Asked what significant solution is needed for them, responding to this query, he said that government must frame a law that keeps the provision like giving ID cards to climate victims in the slum.
"The City Corporation should issue these cards and must ensure compensation especially during the rainy season," he added.
Shoma Day, Associate Professor of Dhaka University, Department of Women and Gender Studies, said that actually climate change impacted men and women differently which we cannot detect with open eyes unless we go into deep.
"Our women folks living in the slums are not only the victims of draught, floods, but also victims of social discrimination and inequality, "she said.
"All these phenomenal results are also responsible for increasing the number of early marriages as their parents think that their daughter would not be able to tackle all these pressures," she said.
Dr Md Khalid Hossain, Programme Manager of Economic Justice Resilience, Oxfam, suggested locality- based solutions to address this situation.
There are merely any opportunities for the climate refugees in this mega city, unless growing cities introduce new industries and factories. "The government cannot ensure quality service to the city people then how could it take extra burden," he said.
Emphasising on availability of multiple facilities and services in the villages, he said in the rural level, government should ensure employment generation, infrastructure development, and various adaptive measures to cope with the impacts of climate change.
"When government ensures these services, people will not be forced to migrate in the cities," he said.
However other experts suggested government to conduct some research works to find out the negotiation skills with the developed countries for fair justice. Dr Saleemul Huq, Director ICCCAD said, a strong commitment and leadership is needed to pay heed to science as it suggests - how big a disaster is waiting for us and what possible steps could save us.