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“There is a growing crisis with climate-related disasters”

 

Rumana Khan is the Gender-Based Violence sub cluster coordinator with UNFPA in Bangladesh. She works in emergencies in one of the most flood-prone countries in the world and is part of a community of humanitarians who are innovating to anticipate the needs of the most vulnerable and support them during climate disasters. 

“There is a growing crisis with climate-related disasters,” Rumana says. “If we take the climate-related disasters, the most prevalent ones are floods.”

Rumana says there are all kinds of climate-related disasters in Bangladesh from monsoon floods to flash floods; from tropical cyclones to riverbank erosion.

She says the intensity and frequency of the floods have increased in recent years and it’s creating greater vulnerabilities for women and girls. “The impact that it has on the lives of the people is significant,” she says. “Besides tropical cyclones we get tidal surges and that also adds to the number of displacements.”

 

“Besides tropical cyclones we get tidal surges and that also adds to the number of displacements.”

 

Rumana says the back-to-back disasters and displacement makes it even harder for communities to recover, especially women, girls and the marginalised groups. “A large proportion of the population is still below the poverty line, and recurring disasters reduce their ability to safeguard themselves or even to recover from the impact."

With a population of 166.3 million and floods becoming more severe, disasters can wipe out livelihoods and leave communities at risk. Particularly women, girls, and third gender individuals are vulnerable and with an intersectional approach among these vulnerable groups, the impact of disasters on their lives is even higher.

COVID-19 has made protection of these groups even harder. “Before the pandemic, community enagement was key in reducing child marriage, preventing gender based violence. With the start of restricted movements, lockdown measures and increasing community transmission of COVID-19, community mobilization programs have stopped in many places.”

Despite the setback from COVID-19, Rumana has seen progress in the way Bangladesh handles disasters. “Disaster management in Bangladesh has had a lot of success in terms of saving lives and reducing mortalities during cyclones and this has been possible because of successful early warning and evacuation to shelters.”

 

“Disaster management in Bangladesh has had a lot of success in terms of saving lives and reducing mortalities during cyclones and this has been possible because of successful early warning and evacuation to shelters.”

 

The national Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) coordinates community volunteers who play a crucial role in sharing early warning messages and evacuations to shelters. There are also systems in place to provide life-saving assistance of food and water in the shelter.

While early warning and evacuations  are well advanced, Rumana says protection against gender-based violence in an emergency is a relatively new aspect among humanitarians addressing climate-related disasters in Bangladesh. She leads a national GBV sub-cluster that builds capacity in gender-based violence in emergencies, ensures quality and standardization of efforts during disasters and shares data with partners to improve future responses.

“It has only been a few years that we really started thinking of gender-based violence in an emergency, and particularly in the context of flood, cyclone etc,” she says. “Sadly many people are still complacent about it.”

Gender-based violence in emergencies is inadequately addressed in the disaster management policies in Bangladesh. However, the sub cluster and its efforts to the  ‘Minimum Standards for Prevention and Response to Gender-based Violence in Emergencies’ in strengthening the capacity of local NGOs and government  are as reasons for hope.

 

 

The sub cluster she leads plays a key role in making sure all community service providers are equipped to handle the needs of the most vulnerable. “Information sharing is a big part of our coordination,” she says. “We work on contingency planning at the cluster level; we prepare humanitarian response plans specific to disasters.”

 

“Information sharing is a big part of our coordination. We work on contingency planning at the cluster level; we prepare humanitarian response plans specific to disasters.”

 

The sub cluster has led an initiative of district level profiling of gender-based violence situations.  “We have identified indicators which help us see red flags in terms of services specific to protection of  women and girls - whether being adequately provided or not,” she says.

The sub-national level working groups on GBV facilitates local and community-based NGOs to coordinate with government service providers including the social welfare, police  and representatives from the One-Stop Crisis Centers. They are the sources of data that help outline a picture of the challenges on the ground.

The sub cluster creates a culture of collaboration and improved efficiency in the responses. This has led to the development of a system of anticipatory action. The idea is that humanitarians act even before the disaster hits.

 

"Once the anticipatory action system is activated, partners need to complete their actions within five days before the water comes down and floods the areas at risk."

 

Using a forecast data model of how much rainfall will lead to floods, the system is designed to distribute supplies and prepare for service delivery before the bridges and roads get washed out. Weather models are used to trigger activation of the anticipatory action and partners go into action before the floods hit. “Once the anticipatory action system is activated, partners need to complete their actions within five days before the water comes down and floods the areas at risk,” she says.

The idea is to ensure communities are supported with adequate risk mitigation measures. “We provide support so they are able to survive the flood better,” she says. “It reduces the need for response and is also more cost effective. Anticipatory action is also seen as a more dignified rights-based approach."

 

“We provide support so they are able to survive the flood better. It reduces the need for response and is also more cost effective. Anticipatory action is also seen as a more dignified rights-based approach."

 

“Floods are recurring incidents,” she says. “We have a good record of these incidents happening so we can anticipate when the flood will happen in these communities.”

Supporting partners and the local government organizations who are living in the community is essential, because their lives are affected. “These are small organizations” she says. “Most of them are women-led organizations and they are often underfunded.”

These partner organizations sometimes do not have safety items for themselves or supplies to reach the target population. “Women are usually front-liners,” she says. “Because our partners are women, they are able to reach those women and girls in affected populations. During a flood this becomes a challenge for them so we try to reduce the risk.”

Rumana says they are trying to build the capacity of community volunteers so they can take mitigation measures on their own. 

 

“Women are usually front-liners. Because our partners are women, they are able to reach those women and girls in affected populations. "

 

During the pandemic, Rumana and partners have sought to improve digital services to maintain support for communities by increasing discussions on key issues including mental health. “We have boosted the virtual support through phone services like the hotline,” she says. “Women and girls can call up to ask for advice on sexual reproductive health, gender-based violence or get support for mental health.”

Despite many  innovations in humanitarian work like digital connectivity and anticipatory action, gender inequality remains a challenge in Bangladesh. “This is a very male-dominated industry where you see very few women  in decision-making roles. This narrative of gender imbalance must change.” 

This gender imbalance motivates Rumana to stay in the field of humanitarian response. She says she is “keeping the space” for women.

 

Learn more

 

Minimum Standards for Prevention and Response to Gender-based Violence in Emergencies