After the Asian tsunami hit the Andaman and Nicobar islands in 2004, destroyed houses needed to be rebuilt. But they weren’t just rebuilt with better materials. The repaired houses and assets became jointly owned by women.
“When that woman faces the next disaster, she has more power to negotiate with her brother or her husband and is far less vulnerable,” said Harjeet Singh, international coordinator of disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation for Action Aid, which oversaw the project.
Challenging power relations and inequality, and upholding human rights might seem a long way off from adapting to climate change. But the logic is that people are vulnerable to climate change because of unequal power structures in their society. When a disaster hits their communities, they are more at risk, and it generally takes them longer to recover from the loss.
Speaking at the 7th International Conference on Community-based Adaptation in Dhaka, Singh tied vulnerability to shocks and stresses to three key factors: social exclusion; lack of access to resources; and lack of assets and economic opportunities. If people’s social exclusion - due to race, sex or other factors – were tackled, alongside efforts to build up their assets and resources, people would be far less vulnerable when the next disaster hits, Singh said.
Similarly Christine Hunter, Bangladesh country representative for UN Women, said that if work focused more on tackling the obstacles that stop women or indigenous groups from achieving their rights, then they would be more resilient when the next disaster strikes.
“Inequality can create vulnerability,” Hunter said. And women in Bangladesh generally live in a very unequal society. Most are employed in agriculture, although they generally don’t own the land they farm.
As agriculture becomes increasingly affected by heavier seasonal rains and rising sea levels, women have fewer resources to draw on to adapt to the changes compared to their husbands or brothers. “A man is more likely to own land, he may have a say over other resources that could earn him a living, or he might have better access to credit,” said Hunter.
VICTIMS OR PEOPLE WITH RIGHTS?
The irony of writing this in a five-star hotel - just after listening to a formal opening speech by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the most powerful woman in the country - doesn’t escape me.
Much of the literature on climate change and gender isn’t helping, according to Hunter. She feels that the discourse often presents women as victims vulnerable to climate change, or focuses on their instrumental role in taking care of their families rather than on their own rights.
“If their ability to support their families is strengthened, according to the discourse, it helps everybody – especially households,” she said. “When we stay with those kinds of narratives, we reinforce inequality. How can we on (the) one hand be painting them as victims and then on the other hand be saying that women have an equal right to shape decisions at national or international levels? Those pictures don’t go very well together,” said Hunter.
Instead she advocated a rights-based approach: “Rights focus on people as citizens and as people who can drive their own development and have the right to do that.”
Wouldn’t this require seismic shifts in power dynamics in most societies to succeed, I asked.
Singh responded with a question: “Have other approaches worked? I don’t see any other approach having a lasting solution.”