“Disaster Management and Climate Change has always been a man’s domain; it hasn’t been a woman’s domain.” – Ms Dilruba Haider, UN Women
With global discourse putting women’s rights issues on the frontlines alongside the ever-pressing issue of climate change, the 6th Gobeshona Conference organized by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) decided to integrate the two topics and host a plenary session titled “Women’s Achievement and Leadership in Combating Climate Change”.
While the remaining panels of the conference encouraged dialogue on policy and research, what sets this particular panel apart was not only that it was a story-telling session, but that a group of artists from a local group called colorBOMBER were simultaneously illustrating the stories of these indomitable women as they were being narrated.
The panel was moderated by Ms Shaila Shahid, Senior Advisor-Climate Change, DRR and Gender, ICCCAD and Ms Shahid was joined by thirteen women of diverse professional backgrounds, each narrating their respective experiences to an eager audience.
The first speaker, Dr Mahbuba Nasreen, PhD, Director & Professor, Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies (IDMVS), Dhaka University shared a very raw and personal story of her journey as a researcher: of how she had to wait 11 months just to get a supervisor for her PhD; of her experience of nine-months in the field researching on rural women in Bangladesh; and how her contributions to the Flood Action Plan (FAP) has deemed her to be a pioneer in research by her peers. She concluded by crediting all the women who work in the field of gender and women’s rights for encouraging the role of women in the field of development.
Next, Ms Hasin Jahan, the Country Representative of WaterAid Bangladesh who was described to be a woman of many hats and feathers by the moderator, spoke of her experiences in the field of Water and Sanitation Hygiene (WASH) as an engineer from BUET. She noted how through her academics, she learnt how to design highways and flyovers, but never a pit latrine or a hut or installing a tubewell. She later spoke of her experience in-field after the cyclone Aila in 2009 and her innovative idea of creating disaster resilient ponds. She recounted fondly some projects she’s worked on and concluded by saying that, “Yes, we have done some tiny things for the people, that makes a great sense of dignity for them and we should hold that up.”
Following Ms Jahan, the Programme Specialist of UN Women’s DRR, Climate Change and Humanitarian Actions, Ms Dilruba Haider took to the stage. She started her speech on a light note, laughing at how she’s “really old here”, having been in this field for 27 years now. She delivered a very powerful speech, highly critical of the male dominated sphere that is the field of disaster management while also commending policies for having frameworks in place for gender-related issues. She ended with a story of a UN Women program participant, Mahera, who used to previously rely on the Sundarbans for her livelihood. After UN Women’s support, Mahera now successfully runs a tea shop and financially supports her family, while her husband shatters gender norms by fulfilling household responsibilities.
Ms Suranjana, the Community Resilience Advisor of Huairou Commission, a global network that focuses on positioning women at grassroot levels as leaders of community development spoke next. Instead of narrating her own experiences, she chose to speak of work that she has learnt a lot from and has helped frame her thinking in terms of women’s empowerment in the context of resilience. She commended a program that got women in post-earthquake Maharashtra, who come from a rather conservative community, to take on roles of leadership, “..The post disaster process of recovery and reconstruction can become such a transformative opportunity for women who are otherwise isolated.” She also spoke of other similar projects which mobilised women in the field of agriculture in the western state of Maharashtra. She concluded by advocating for a shift in perception of viewing grassroots women as victims, but rather as leaders capable of bringing about change.
Ms Tahmina Khan Tithi, Project Officer-ICT and Development, Oxfam reflected on her journey on how she started working in the development sector after she was suffering from an infection back in 2008 from the unpleasant and growing problem of air pollution in Dhaka City. Her problem prompted her to take community based action as a student where she worked to raise awareness on the adverse effects of environmental pollution in her area. Her initiative was to promote green practices in her area. Her actions eventually got published which pushed her to pursue a career in the development sector as a climate activist. She is formally trained as an engineer and she reflected how those two hats helped her combine her expertise to mitigate problems associated with climate change. Moving forward Ms. Tahmina urged the audience to be more proactive in regards to green practices.
Dr. Raunak Jahan, Assistant Professor of Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College and BSMMU shared her experiences as a medical practitioner. She spoke of how women and children are the most affected, healthwise, in times of natural disasters. She said that maximum cases of high-risk pregnancies are due to hazard of environmental and climatic changes. She then discussed the risks that come from adolescent pregnancies, the taboo that surrounds topics of sexual health and reproductive rights in this country, and the biological risks associated with the development of babies during high-risk pregnancies.
Ms. Syeda Yeasmin from Association for Alternative Studies (AFAD) from Kurigram took the floor to share her stories regarding disaster victims in the Kurigram area and told the audience how their experiences differ from the ones the general population of Dhaka city areas have faced during a disaster scenario. “ ..the problems faced by women in those areas are uncomparable”. She also highlighted how children and women’s experiences differ from that of men in those areas. She stated that sanitation problem faced by women during flooding has created scenarios in the past were women had to go without drinking water or potable clean water for washing or sanitation. Ms. Yeasmin credited her organization and other women leaders in Kurigram who have successfully changed those scenarios faced during disasters.
Ms. Rosta Mate of The Eduardo Mondanne University, Mozambique, reflected her story as a researcher and recalled her struggles growing up. Ms. Rosta talked about her life growing up in a low-income family where the driving force behind her motivation was the quote she learned early in her life “If you are poor, you cannot afford to be wrong, you cannot afford to fail” – everything she had to do growing up needed to be 100% without any room for error. Her hard work eventually paid off which led her to pursue her Master’s degree. She felt that her struggle and aspiration as an academic coming out of the grassroots level helped and motivated her to contribute to areas such as of the forestry and climate change sector which were affecting her homeland. She feels proud that she was able to help her community, university and most importantly her country.
Ms. Kamrun Nessa Rimu, recounted her journey of shifting career paths from a civil engineer to a woman entrepreneur. Having to leave her career for her children and other personal reasons, she often dabbled in consultancy work, but felt that as a woman it was difficult to carry out part-time work. She then discovered the platform of e-commerce where she chose to utilise her passion for design and create an online boutique. She talked about other women entrepreneurs she has met through the e-commerce community and praised them for their resilience despite their lack of formal training. She said, “Not everybody is skilled, not every woman is trained but they have so many dreams, enthusiasm and passion.”
She concluded by requesting the government to help facilitate more female entrepreneurs by ensuring ease of access to raw materials and providing training about business planning.
Ms Sadia Khalid Reeti, the Show Time Editor from Dhaka Tribune mentioned how women’s role in film making has risen in the past couple of years but sadly women’s representation and their stories are not always heard especially from the climate change sector. She proposed the idea of making short films about the stories shared in the session as a way forward.
Ms Tracy Kajumba, Principal Researcher & Team Leader, Strengthening Partnerships, Climate Change Group; International Institute for Environment and Development, UK talked about gender division and parity in light of climate change. Ms. Kajumba talked about gender roles and the correlation with climate impacts and went into reminding the audience that since women and men have different roles, climate impacts are also differentiated. In light of those facts, Ms. Kajumba shared her success stories on how she and four other colleagues opened a research center “Kabarole Research and Resource Center” where her career started with a first study on finding out causes of dropping out of school.
The research center has grown over the years working nationally with international partnerships. She highlighted three key issues; the importance of talking about women leadership which she says is downplayed yet there are stereotypes on how women leaders are perceived. She quoted an example when she worked with Government in Uganda when female administrators were very few and men called her a bully, and questioned how she got hired for a role perceived to be a domain for men. The second point was on levels where women leadership is needed. Tracy emphasised the need for leadership from grassroot to global level, quoting examples of women she has worked or interacted with that have used their positions to advance women’s leadership, notably, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland through the Mary Robinson climate justice foundation among many others including grassroot women leaders. The third point was on support for women leadership, where she noted that women need mentoring, funding, strengthening their capabilities and voices to enable them excel and overcome the exclusion and injustices the world throws at them. She called upon women leaders to support and uplift others for a stronger voice on climate leadership. She also noted the role of men in supporting women’s leadership because most boardrooms are full of men, and if they don’t understand the women’s cause and support it, progress will be slow. Ms. Kajumba’s stories reminded the audience how women face daily harassment in the all arenas and it is no different in the case of climate action where cases of harassment are even registered at UNFCCC level. For women to get the benefits of effective climate action, practitioners should address the underlying cause of vulnerability to climate impacts and address injustices that keep women and other socially excluded groups from decision making spaces.
Ms Jannat from Satkhira put forward the problems of areas such as Satkhira and the coastal areas and how those areas are different from other zones impacted by climate change. She shared a story from her personal experience on how media usually does not give those areas much importance compared to other areas. She urged the leaders and practitioners to come up with strategies to help put activists like her and their stories in the mainstream media.
The last speaker of the panel, Ms Rabeya Sultana, the Country Director of Muslim Aid Bangladesh, spoke of the barriers she’s faced as a working woman in Bangladeshi society. She spoke of her work with the Dalit community, the ‘untouchable caste’, and how through her work the community has made strides in integrating with society. She talked about her work with sex workers and pushed for inclusivity of sex workers in access to relief, and encouraged women to support other women. She concluded with a call to make the dialogue on climate policy an inclusive one, bringing together not only women and children, but also the physically-challenged.
A story-telling session like such was a rather unique one in a conference like Gobeshona, and in conclusion to it all, Dr Saleemul Huq, the Director of ICCCAD said, “Invest in our girls. Our girls, over the next 21 years, they will transform the country, Bangladesh. But what we are doing today is not good enough, we are going to have to change the way we educate, the way we capacitate, and in particular, the way we build leadership.”
Ms. Sharnila Nuzhat Kabir is a second-year Environmental Science student at the Independent University, Bangladesh. She is an upcoming activist, woman leader and water security enthusiast who has dedicated her early career in helping poor communities to have access to safe drinking water. She is a Trustee at Footsteps where she is working as the head of Partnerships.