Bangladesh: Teenage girls hit hardest by natural disasters

Rescue skills. Photo courtesy of Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh
Rescue skills. Photo courtesy of Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh

The first report to ever examine international gender differences in natural disaster mortality rates was published a decade ago – yet according to co-author Professor Eric Neumayer, from the London School of Economics (LSE), natural disasters continue to kill more women than men or kill women at an earlier age than men. The same holds true for the finding that “what is likely to matter most [concerning fatalities] is the everyday socio-economic status of women,” rather than any biological and physiological differences.

Neumayer said, “There is no reason to presume the findings would not uphold [in] 2012, but without actually updating the dataset, it is impossible to say for sure.”

A 2011 study by Plan International found that climate change disproportionately affects adolescent girls in particular, and that more research is required, “The gender dimension of climate change is gaining a greater profile globally. Yet the double jeopardy brought by gender and age remains largely ignored.”

Plan’s study notes that, “Adolescence is the time when gender roles for girls become more entrenched; in many countries their lives become limited to the domestic sphere. This seclusion brings with it greater exposure to a range of risks,” which in the context of a natural disaster destroying the family’s livelihood, may include leaving school to find work in city garment factories or becoming domestic workers in private homes, where they may be exposed to sexual abuse.

According to a 2010 survey published by the Dhaka-based Association of Climate Refugees, there are already 6.5 million Bangladeshis forcibly displaced as a result of increased tidal heights and riverbank erosion.

Although LSE acknowledges that, “the underlying cultural, social and economic patterns that lead to a low socio-economic status of women… are not easy to deal with. But this does not mean that nothing can be done.”

Swimming classes. Photo courtesy of Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh
Swimming classes. Photo courtesy of Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh

A shining example is the International Drowning Research Centre in Bangladesh (IRDC) which runs a UNICEF-funded SwimSafe project. Since it began in 2006, 210,000 people aged from 5 to 14 have learnt survival skills and rescue techniques and the project’s success has been replicated in Thailand and Vietnam.

Dr. Aminur Rahman, Director of the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh (CIPRB) said, “Drowning is preventable in low income countries. It costs $10 to teach one child to swim.”

Around sixty percent of teachers administering CPR and other life saving skills are adolescents. The rest are community leaders – which may inadvertently lead to young women gaining access to local decision makers and an opportunity to contribute their own views on mitigating the effects of natural disasters.

Swimming instructor Mossammat Taposhi Khatun, 29, decided to get involved in 2009 after her 10-year-old cousin drowned, in addition to the many other children in her village who encountered the same tragically preventable fate.

Khatun’s official duty is to teach children between the ages of four and 10. She said, “It’s no problem to get young girls to take part in the lessons, but it becomes hard when they reach 14, because they feel shy wearing wet clothes. That’s why I voluntarily teach extra classes for girls aged between 12 and 14.”

She added, “Cultural attitudes have changed a lot – when I learnt to swim, it was difficult, though my parents always supported me. The parents of children who drowned helped transform attitudes by saying, ‘We lost our child and don’t want this to happen to anyone else.’ We’ve mobilised our community into regarding swimming as a vital – and mandatory – life skill.”

A young girl learning to paddle. Photo courtesy of Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh
A young girl learning to paddle. Photo courtesy of Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh

Khatun said, “One of my former swimming pupils saved another boy’s life with the skills he developed. Sometimes I cry with joy, because I know I can save a life at any time using CPR.”
Khatun added that in the last three years, not a single child has drowned in her village.

However drowning remains the leading cause of death in children aged 1–17 years in Bangladesh and according to Forced Migration Review, it is the world’s third most vulnerable country to sea-level rise, with almost 40 million people living in vulnerable coastal areas.

And as Forced Migration Review predicts, “The loss of coastal land to the sea in this vulnerable zone… is likely to generate a steady flow of displaced people.”

However Mizan Shoron, a teacher living in an area affected by Cyclone Sidr in 2007 gave a brighter picture of the post-disaster scenario.
He said, “It’s true that many girls moved from villages to towns. Half of all our homes were destroyed, so everyone that could leave, did. But the majority of female students resumed their education after a year, because the government built corrugated iron houses. It wasn’t only the females at our school who returned – many elsewhere in the region did so too.”


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Jessica Mudditt is an Australian freelance journalist whose articles have been published by The Economist, BBC, CNN, Marie Claire, GQ and Australian Geographic.

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“I squeezed Sherpa’s hand one last time before reluctantly letting go. Our eyes locked for a second and we mouthed a quick “I love you” – the most affection it was appropriate to show in the conservative Buddhist country. I wanted to run my hand through his mop of curly black hair but he was already walking away from me.”