This paper will attempt to form an overview of the phenomenon of internal displacement due to climate change, with a specific focus on the impact of gender in internal migration in Bangladesh. The choice of this country comes from the fact that Bangladesh is one of the worst victims of climate change in the world and a place in which gender inequalities persist. The paper explores the concept of climate change as a threat multiplier, then, it addresses the concept of internal displacement and the patterns of this phenomenon due to climate change. In this context, the issue of gender vulnerability is still present and deepened due to extreme weather conditions in addition to the strict gender norms dictated by the purdah system. The paper will analyse the issue in the areas of the Satkhira and the Bhola district in Bangladesh, both coastal areas adjacent to the Bay of Bengal, which are very compromised by typhoons. Thus, gender migration will be provided as the main adaptation strategy linked to social costs and gender-specific challenges.
Climate change and gender vulnerability: the case of the Satkhira district
As declared by the IPCC and by all UN agencies, climate change is a national security challenge and a stress multiplier: we are living in a period of climate turmoil characterised by rising temperatures, less stable, less predictable, and more deadly dramatic events. Everything is interconnected and it undermines the very existence of the state and the livelihood of people (Garai, 2016). In underdeveloped countries, not only does it have a political meaning exacerbating present violent conflicts and the economic system of a country, but it also has to be understood to have a social meaning: “disasters should rather be understood as the outcome of social pressures” (Roy, 2019). In such countries, many people live precariously and there is no effective support for adaptation by the governments. The UNDP has identified Bangladesh to be the most vulnerable country in terms of cyclones, floods, and natural disasters above all in the coastal area of the Bay of Bengal where they hit with frequency and severity (Garai, 2016).
In the south-west part of Bangladesh, in the Satkhira district, the areas called Burigoalini and Gabura of Shymnagar are the most vulnerable in the country. This district is adjacent to the Bay of Bengal where climatic hazards such as cyclones and floods are daily occurrences (Garai, 2016). Precisely in this area, there is the so-called Sundarbans, “the largest area of tidal mangrove forest in the world” (Roy, 2016). Throughout the year, mangroves play a pivotal role in serving as a source of livelihood, protecting from coastal erosion, and counterbalancing the aftermath of disasters (Roy, 2016). Consequently, the densely populated coastal region along the Bay of Bengal constitutes a vulnerable “frontline” (Ahmed and Eklund, 2021).
In this region, people are extremely affected by hazardous climatic conditions and women face strong difficulties because of their gender roles. In Bangladesh, women have limited access to resources, education, and decision-making power: “they carry the major responsibility for household water supply, as well as, energy gathering for cooking and food security” (Garai, 2016). This means that during natural catastrophes, women face dynamic pressures due to the lack of knowledge about the disaster: they cannot coordinate or get information from local institutions, face scarcity in terms of commodities, and are unable to cope with the critical situation. Women working in crop fields or rivers are even more at risk given that strong winds destroy trees and forests, which can protect people from the flowing waters. As the degree of salinity in river waters increases, women cannot fish, and they may not have safe drinking water.
As a result, climate change is not gender-neutral: it shapes men and women differently according to their existing inequalities in terms of power relationships (Garai, 2016). The concept of women vulnerability refers to “the way of economic activities and lives of women are affected due to climate change-induced natural hazards” (Garai, 2016). Due to their roles, they are more marginalised and less capable of adapting than men. This implies the dependence of women on natural resources is precisely endangered by climate change. Particularly in the coastal areas, women have to tackle multiple challenges as their jobs are severely threatened. It is also clear that this gender-specific vulnerability is a consequence of women’s socially constructed roles within the patriarchal society where they live. Even though women could be “key agents of change” (Roy, 2019), development programmes and policies do not consider them, thus exacerbating inequalities between men and women. Many scholars have discussed the feminisation of poverty to explain the complexities and divergences between male and female poverty in a specific context over time (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). In this area, people struggle to find new income sources to survive or decide to migrate (Garai, 2016).
Climate change-induced migration: the phenomenon of the internal displacement
Displacement associated with disasters is one of the biggest humanitarian and sustainable development challenges facing the world today and Bangladesh is at the core of this phenomenon. Despite the efforts of the national government to protect vulnerable groups from climate change, Bangladeshi people feel threatened and look at migration as the only solution for their survival. Displacement driven by gradually evolving environmental change is primarily a development issue: the scarcity of vital resources can lead to a serious disruption of livelihoods. In turn, the disruption of livelihoods leads to a substantial change in the community’s capacity to cope with disasters and so the risk of displacement is more prominent. Slow-onset events can lead to acute food insecurity, provoking displacement as a survival strategy (IDMC, 2021). It is clearly a vital recourse in situations where land is permanently lost, or the risks people face become unsustainable (IDMC, 2018). According to the IPCC, migration is seen as a form of adaptation or the “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic effects” (IPCC, 2018). In this context, the term “climate change refugee” addresses people who migrate because of climate disasters, as these events resulted to be major factors of displacement (Thornton, 2018).
Of Bangladesh’s 64 districts, 24 coastal and mainland districts are already causing climate-displacement. A study by the Displacement Solution found that one of the primary causes of climate displacement in Bangladesh is tidal height increases in the coastal areas, leading to tidal flooding, and riverbank erosion in the mainland areas. The secondary causes are tropical cyclones and storm surges in the coastal regions and river flooding in the mainland, as in the case of the river delta (Displacement Solutions, 2012). Sea level rise from climate change is expected to worsen many of these processes and subsume up to 13 percent of Bangladesh’s coastal land by 2080. The study produced by the Sussex Centre for Migration Research and the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit estimates that from 2011 to 2050, as many as 16 to 26 million people would move out from their places of origin in Bangladesh due to a number of climatic hazards. These flows would include both internal displacement and other forms of labour migration predominantly within the country (Siddiqui et al, 2015). Moreover, the coastal districts generating climate displaced persons are especially Satkhira, followed by Khulna, Bagerhat, Pirojpur, Barguna, Patuakhali, Bhola, Fani, Laxmipur, Noakhali, Chittagong, and Cox’s Bazaar.
Flash and regular floods were the climatic push factors of migration from Sunamganj and storm surge, salinity, cyclone, and coastal erosion are the main climatic drivers of migration from Khulna, Bagerhat, and Patuakhali (NHDR, 2021). Until now, tidal floods have affected 236 sub-districts of those coastal areas and riverbank erosion has affected 179 sub-districts in the mainland areas of Bangladesh (Displacement Solutions, 2012).
In terms of numbers, in 2020, disasters triggered 4.4 million new displacements, most of them preemptive evacuations ahead of the landfall of Cyclone Amphan in May (IDMC, 2022). The monsoon floods, which were the worst in decades, inundated a quarter of the country by late July. This disaster led to approximately 1.9 million displacements in Chittagong, Sylhet, Dhaka, Rangpur, and Mymensingh divisions towards cities such as Dhaka (IDMC, 2021). Several displacements occurred also in 2021, particularly when in Sirajganj District, Rajshahi Division, nine hazardous climatic events took place across Bangladesh forcing at least eight displacements (NIRAPAD, 2021). Heavy rainfall caused an embankment collapse on 13 November in Nawabganj District, Rajshahi division and at least 25 houses have been abandoned, resulting in at least 105 displacements (NIRAPAD, 2021) and River erosion on 1 November in Rajbari District, Dhaka Division, forced at least 13 displacements (NIRAPAD, 2021). The following chart perfectly represents how climatic disasters increased in the last two years provoking between 4,000,000 and 5,000,000 new displacements.
Disaster displacement figure, IDMC, 2021
Generally, people decide to migrate, temporarily or permanently, because of some economic push factors such as lack of employment and business opportunities as well as access to resources and lower-income, with the hope of earning money and new livelihood opportunities. However, in the case of extreme climate events, people have no choice but to migrate permanently from risky to safe places in terms of occupation and living. High economic and psychological impacts may intensify vulnerability, which pushes them to migrate even though many of them, especially the poor and disadvantaged ones, take shelter in urban slums and informal settlements. Sometimes, slow-climatic events allow people to migrate temporarily. An example is the case of the crop growing duration for the Haor area, large bowl-shaped floodplain depressions located in the north-eastern region of Bangladesh, due to which from November to March people have to stay at home. Salinity intrusion can be another reason to migrate temporarily because during monsoon the salinity line extends to the central part of the country up to 20 km (NHDR, 2021).
Gender displacement: from the Bhola district to Dhaka
The potential linkage between female migration and environmental stressors has not been explored to a larger degree. A partial explanation for the lack of focus on women in environmental migration studies can be found in disaster and hazard literature where the vulnerability of women is compared to that of men with disheartening results (Evertsen and Van der Geest, 2019). Instead, most research concerning gender and climate change has thus far focused on the larger vulnerabilities of women. Moreover, The Bangladesh population census does not have detailed data about environmental migration disaggregated by sex. Actually, for decades, researchers focused mainly on men migrating to other countries or other districts to maintain their families and little attention has been given to the phenomenon of gender migration itself. The expression “feminisation of migration” emerged underlying that also women have to be considered “birds of passage” as Michael Piore defined migrants in his book ‘Birds of Passage’ in the 1980s (Marchetti, 2018). In reality, such as in Bangladesh, there is a tendency to overshadow female migrants both during hazardous climatic events and when they are exploited by the market. Thus, the feminisation of migration is defined in two ways: quantitative and qualitative. The former dimension refers to the number of migrant women and has to be seen along with the qualitative approach that focuses on the experiences of migrants that envisage different outcomes (Marchetti, 2018). At this level, scholars tried to understand how migration changes gender roles because, generally, “by crossing borders, men tend to be seen as […] mobile family breadwinner while women […] followed as dependents or remain invisible” (Morokvaśic, 2016). However, female migrants need to be considered and protected since they are at the centre of many human rights violations, especially during environmental disasters.
The phenomenon of internal displacement produces several consequences for women. It heightens the risk women and girls face in terms of gender-based violence because it separates them from their communities and families. Displaced girls living in shelters or slums are particularly vulnerable to targeting by traffickers, and camps, in general, tend to be hostile environments for women (IDMC, 2020). Internal displacement amplifies pre-existing inequalities and can place internally displaced girls in precarious situations, unable to access services and have their rights respected. Furthermore, extreme poverty resulting from displacement obliges women to find a new job different from the one they used to do in their homeland. Despite valuing the importance of education, young women and girls still face major obstacles to getting a quality education, meaning that they face greater difficulties than young men in finding decent jobs.
Moreover, in Bangladesh, gender roles act as social barriers to female adaptation because deep gender inequalities persist due to the cultural practice of purdah, a set of norms that regulate female morality and roles. Displacement reinforces harmful pre-existing gender norms that perpetuate socioeconomic disadvantages. In the Bhola district, an administrative area in south-central Bangladesh, women have no real income opportunities, and migration is the only way to improve their lives, either with or without family members. Since the 1971 cyclone, people have been moving to the capital Dhaka, establishing a migration pattern between the city and the Bhola district due to the extreme weather conditions. The district is exposed both to the activity of two rivers, as well as to tidal changes and cyclones from the ocean. However, today, Dhaka is overpopulated, and it is exposed to environmental stressors too, such as fires and floods, pushing migrants into a dilemma: they move to have a better life, but they find new obstacles and menaces (Evertsen and Van der Geest, 2019). Thus, cities like Dhaka represent the “focus of international efforts to deal with climate change and migration” since “unhealthy, disaster-prone and environmentally unsafe slums are often the destination of migrants” (Turhan and Armiero, 2019). Indeed, the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants are from Bhola district in coastal Bangladesh, which is highly exposed to environmental stressors (Evertsen and Van der Geest, 2019). Precisely in the Bhola slum of Dhaka, many young women work as housemaids or in the garments sector since this industry creates an “economic pull factor for women to migrate” (Evertsen and Van der Geest, 2019). However, these favourable working conditions are created since women are easier to control as they do not complain about bad working conditions. Paradoxically, this results in women having a more stable income than men, but this reliance on female income finds itself in striking disagreement with the purdah system, deepening the stigmatisation of female workers. Women’s labour migration has been considered a family dishonour of such magnitude that in no circumstance could it be allowed. Religious authorities and conservative elders continue to preach that “women are made for the home”, while women crossing borders without guardians are accused of moral impropriety” (Evertsen and Van der Geest, 2019). As pointed out, there are important local variations in these judgments but, on the whole, women’s labour migration is not a source of honour and respect unless and until sufficient money has been earned over a sufficiently long time and converted into land. All these aspects contribute to the creation of a bad reputation that involves social costs both for the woman and her family, especially if she is still unmarried. In this case, her value on the marriage market will drop because the price of dowry is closely linked to reputation. Thus, women migrants have always need to preserve a good reputation in order not to intensify the cultural burden upon them (Evertsen and Van der Geest, 2019).
Another aspect to be taken into account is that women should not be seen as isolated individuals but as members of a family: the concept of the global care chain shows how domestic migrant women have left a gap in their families. This change establishes new forms of transnational families in which gender roles and primary responsibilities are re-defined. Families may pay another poor woman to fill the gap or entrust the children to grandparents to raise them, above all when both parents migrate. In some cases, children grow up in tough situations where they have no other option but to be strong. Girls have to grow up fast leaving their childhood behind their back, cleaning the house, cooking and taking care of themselves because nobody can look after them. This can mean leaving school, where the lack of motherly care causing loneliness and depression found to be another reason for not attending schools regularly. Nobody knows how many children in Bangladesh are growing up in this way (World News, 2015).
Besides, new technologies, such as phone calls or videocalls, gave birth to the virtualisation of family life allowing people to keep in touch even when they are physically separated. In this way, migrant women can contribute by sending remittances to their left-behind families, improving the economic situation of the entire family. This could change gender relations by presenting women as the breadwinners of their home. Apart from financial payments, there are also social remittances that cover all those new skills and knowledge that can help women to boost socio-economic development in their communities. However, in the case of Bangladesh, women cannot practically apply those abilities upon return because they find themselves bound by socio-religious constraints. Their stigmatisation and institutional inefficiency do not allow them to be totally reintegrated into the society, leaving women in a low status within their community (ILO Country Office for Bangladesh, 2014).
Bangladeshi government response to gender climate-induced migration
Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law.
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