Politics of Poverty

Suffering, and a whisper of hope: women and the climate crisis

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women of the char
Mosammat Halima Begum (left) and Mosammat Kulsum live on a sandbar in the Jamuna River of Bangladesh. Both have been displaced by floods and erosion more than 20 times in their lives—mostly in the last ten years. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

As nations discuss compensation for climate-related losses and damage, they need to understand what women in the most at-risk communities are going through.

First, they had nothing. Now, they have less.

That pretty well sums up the situation for women living on the front lines of the climate crisis.

Poverty had long made their lives precarious, but now they face soaring temperatures, disruptions to the growing seasons, and devastating storms and floods, ­­­and their lives as women have taken a sharp turn for the worse.

Traditionally the caregivers of the family, women’s access to education, incomes, and the enjoyment of basic rights has often been curtailed, and as the climate crisis intensifies, their struggles deepen.

Take Mosammat Kulsum, who lives on a char, a sandbar in the middle of the Jamuna River in Bangladesh. Floodwaters give life to the chars and then—over the course of years or sometimes in a single blow—they take it away.

Each time Kulsum sets down roots on the only land she can afford to live on, it is just a matter of time before the water comes for her. In the course of her lifetime, she has been displaced by floods and erosion more than 20 times, but the pace of change has accelerated dramatically: she was displaced three times in the past year.

Once she had two cows; now, she says, she has nothing. Nothing but a tiny plot of land on an island whose days are numbered. To put food on the table, she works as a farm laborer, but these days the midday heat is hard to bear. Her temperature and blood pressure shoot up and, she says, “the fever doesn’t leave me.”

Far from the chars of Bangladesh, women in the Philippines echo Kulsum’s experience. “It used to be we could work in the fields until noon,” says Cherry Ayhon, who lives in the vulnerable coastal province of Eastern Samar. “Now, the heat can be unbearable at 8:00.”

In the rural community of Cambilla in Eastern Samar, the Philippines, Editha Macawili labors in her field in 110-degree heat. By 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, farmers in this part of the country now need to stop working in the sun. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

A women’s perspective

Climate change is triggering countless emergencies around the world, but women don’t experience emergencies the same way men do. They have a different set of responsibilities within the family, and their bodies are different.

Start with menstruation. For women like Kulsum who have to carry out tasks during heavy rains, sometimes in waist-deep flood water, menstrual pads can be more of a hazard than a help. Sodden pads are useless, and even dampness can result in itchy infections.

In fact, it can be so difficult to manage menstruation in emergencies that some women are resorting to birth-control pills to stop the flow of blood—pills of unknown provenance and without prescription.

In traditional communities, it’s normally women who fetch water for the family, and in emergencies, the trip to a source of potable water can be an arduous and even dangerous trek. Meanwhile, the women are caring for children and elders, whose needs are compounded during disasters.

“When the rains are heavy, women have a lot of extra work to do and it is more complicated,” says Nurun Nahar, another char dweller. “The children need more attention, the livestock need to be moved to a safer place, the cow dung we are trying to dry for fuel gets wet. We can’t cook or do the laundry. Floods also affect our health, because latrines and water sources get destroyed.”

It is women who prepare the meals each day, and who make the hard choices around food. Celsa Nable lives in an island community in the Philippines where the ocean water is warming and fish harvests are plummeting.

Many of the nutritious foods she once ate are no longer affordable, and the foods that are affordable may not be fresh. “Now, when food is slightly rotten,” she says, “we just add things to make it edible.”

And then there is the emotional pain. Women tell of the anguish they feel when their children look to them—the meal providers—for the food they need, and there is nothing to give.

They suffer humiliation, as well. Murky flood water makes bathing and laundry impossible, so they can’t keep their families clean, and sometimes they have to ask friends and family for handouts to meet essential needs.

The husbands are too ashamed to go begging, says Filipina rice farmer Richel Lumber. “We are ashamed, too, but we have to do it to survive.”

Celsa Nable lives in a fishing community in the Philippines hit hard by the climate crisis. “Now, when food is slightly rotten,” she says, “we just add things to make it edible.” Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Joining forces to adapt

Not that the women are taking all this lying down. They are hard at work adapting to their new environments. Of the many skills they have always brought to their families and communities, the ability to build close relationships, support one another, and function well as a team are proving to be lifelines.

“When it comes to disasters, the ability and strength of women is beyond measure,” says Ayhon. She should know. When the devastating Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, she was pregnant and several days overdue. She had traveled from her remote village to a city hospital, but in the teeth of the storm, the hospital shut down and evacuated its patients. Ayhon had a place to stay that wasn’t badly damaged; there, she cared for babies from the neonatal unit until her son was born.

Crisis has shaped her life, and not always for the worse: there was a time when she was too shy to speak in public, but now she is the head of her community, and a vocal advocate for disaster preparedness and risk reduction.

Bangladeshi women living on chars are some of the most vulnerable to disaster of anyone in the world, but they are finding ways to survive. By pooling tiny savings of rice over time, women (and a few men) working with Oxfam and partners have created food banks that serve as buffers against hunger in the lean times, including flood emergencies. (Read “A Handful of Rice.”)

Likewise, women are helping each other keep their cows healthy and well fed. “We work as a team and help each other a lot,” says food-bank member Samina Begum.

Tahera, Hamida, and Samira at the food bank in the village of South Gabindi, Gaibandha. “The food bank is our only source of hope,” says Hamida. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Gender matters

As nations discuss how to compensate countries and communities for climate-related losses and damage, Oxfam is shining a spotlight on the reality that gender matters. Women and men face different struggles, and because so much of women’s lives takes place in the privacy of their homes, and because they are often denied a place at key decision-making tables, their voices are muted and their experiences largely invisible.

This is particularly true of women who have been marginalized on the basis of their race, ethnicity, class, age, or (dis)ability.

Stories abound of the strength and ingenuity of people living on the frontlines of the climate emergency, but the fact remains that poverty and inequality have rendered their lives precarious, and the threat that climate change poses to their futures is dire.

At COP 28 and beyond, Oxfam is advocating for resources dedicated to climate loss and damage to be aimed at meeting the needs and upholding the rights of all genders. (Read the briefing paper "Gendered Dimensions of Loss and Damage in Asia.")

The climate crisis is having devastating effects on people’s lives, but when Kulsum reflects on what’s ahead, she refuses to give despair a foothold: “I still dream of a better future.”

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