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Women’s leadership fosters resilience in Bangladesh

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - 13:37

Gender inequality and patriarchy 

For the poorest women in South Asia, gender-based cultural restrictions are routinely practised. Women are excluded from economic activities and have limited access to, or control over, the productive resources that would allow them to earn their own income. Even when women are able to earn an income, they are often expected to hand the money over to their husband or male relative, and have little say on how their earnings are spent.

The South Asia Women’s Resilience Index, developed by ActionAid Australia in collaboration with the Australian Government and The Economist Intelligence Unit, demonstrates that countries across South Asia fare poorly in supporting women’s resilience to disasters. Many countries have significant economic and social barriers to women’s empowerment that increase their vulnerability during disasters.

For this to change ActionAid believes women’s access to information and collective action is crucial. With information that accurately describes their situation, the challenges they face and opportunities available to them, women are able to organise and mobilise together to start challenging the inequalities they face on a daily basis.  

Changing gender perceptions through a community Resilience Index 

In collaboration with the Overseas Development Institute, ActionAid developed the Measuring People’s Resilience Toolkit to identify gender inequalities that lead to the disproportionate impact of disasters on women and girls. The toolkit was piloted in three districts in Bangladesh - Patuakhali, Faridpur and Barguna. It has started a dialogue in these communities between men and women on the differences in resilience between genders and other excluded social groups. Women are now more aware of the factors that limit or promote their resilience, and are determined to work collectively to improve the situation through priority actions they themselves have identified. 

Women leaders preparing the community for floods 

Last year, 36 women leaders led 443 community participants to develop resilience action plans for their communities.

File 37740The damages of flooding in Patuakhali. Photo: Mahmud/ActionAid

Through increased awareness of their resilience, women leaders in Faridpur recognised that they must be proactive in preparing their communities for rapidly rising water levels, amidst the fear of the annual monsoon floods. Women convened meetings in their courtyards to build awareness with both men and women in the community. They encouraged community members to stockpile dried foods and to keep an emergency safety net fund if possible. They also started to identify the most vulnerable – children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and pregnant women – so that they could quickly be evacuated to safe zones during a possible flood.

Fortunately, the water level did not rise as much as feared and people did not have to leave their homes during the flood, however many crops were destroyed. With farming being the primary economic activity for local communities, many people experienced serious economic losses as a result of the destruction. Women leaders decided to prepare a list of the affected farmers, and submitted applications to the Union Council and Department of Agriculture for financial assistance. The Union Council responded favourably, providing 40 of the most affected families with staple food products.

Steps towards change

One of the key outcomes of the community Resilience Index has been the collective mobilisation of women, and empowerment of women leaders to guide community members in resilience-building efforts. Throughout the project, women have been able to initiate processes that incrementally build their resilience by challenging and transforming existing gender stereotypes.

Being a leader in disaster response and risk reduction has changed my life. People now respect me and judge my work and experience a lot more than before. Each time there is an emergency I contact everyone in my network to tell them that the disaster is coming, and I give suggestions and advice about what steps to follow and who should do what. Everyone gives importance to what I say. Everybody respects me. I am creating change! I am so proud of how far I have come and everything I am able to do now.

Women’s leader Sabita Rani

File 37741Sabita Rani with her women's group. Photo: Turjoy Chowdhury/ActionAid

Women’s social mobility within these communities has improved markedly, with women who previously never left their homes being some of the first to participate in disaster preparedness initiatives. Men are also increasingly able to see the influence certain traditional practices have on women, and how small changes can make a big difference to the resilience of women, the household and the community.


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