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March 7, 2024
Climate

Inspiring Inclusion in Bangladesh

Cosmo

By Laura Hendy, Climate and Resilience Programmes Manager

Stepping out into the beating sun after hours of travelling through winding roads, I took in my surroundings. We had arrived in the remote coastal village of Koyra, within the Khulna district of Bangladesh, situated in the west of the country. It is a place defined by contrast. Just a stone’s throw away to my right, across a river, is the Sundarbans. An area of deep and mysterious mangroves, famous for its large and fearsome tiger population. But the impact of the climate crisis in this part of Bangladesh is also striking and immediate. Driving along the coast to Korya, fields of vibrant green rice paddies turned to dull, beige land that no longer supported agriculture – let alone life. Buildings were crumbling, and fishing boats lay abandoned like driftwood on the riverbanks.  

Speaking with members of the community, they explained to us that all of this comes down to salt; rising sea levels and more frequent storms bring salty seawater inland, destroying fertile soils, contaminating drinking and agricultural water, and eroding their infrastructure. Farmland that used to yield three rice harvests a year now barely yield one. Cyclones, which used to hit Koyra once or twice a year, now come eight or nine times. And the ‘cyclone shelters’ we visited were, in reality, the local schools – expected to house hundreds of people, with no windows, toilets, or safe routes for elderly people, people with disabilities, pregnant women and other vulnerable groups.  

A school in Koyra, Bangladesh, used as a shelter when cyclones strike

Bangladesh’s high climate risks come from its location in the Bengal Delta, its low-lying, flat topography, and its exposure to regular cyclones. Across the country, flooding is now intensifying as rainfall becomes more extreme and less predictable, and sea-levels rise. From 1999 to 2019, Bangladesh has consistently ranked 7th globally (Climate Risk Index, 2021). By 2050, declining agricultural incomes, sea level rise, salinisation and repeated flooding are expected to create 13.3 million internal climate migrants within Bangladesh (World Bank, 2022). 

World Jewish Relief has worked in Bangladesh since 2018, responding to typhoons and improving conditions in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, helping people to develop sustainable livelihoods, and survive extreme weather events. Now, we’re supporting this community in Koyra, helping them to build their resilience to the climate crisis through our local partner Prottyashi. 

The impact of the climate crisis on farmland in Koyra, Bangladesh

Everyone in the community is being affected by the declining availability of safe, fresh water, failing farming livelihoods, and intensifying cyclones. But women and girls are bearing the brunt. As the ones responsible for washing and cooking, they are more exposed to the salty water, which is causing new skin infections. When their limited toilet facilities are destroyed by flooding and salt weathering, and they have nowhere else to go, they are exposed to more violence and harassment.  

And the climate crisis is even disrupting women’s menstrual health. The women in the community have always had to manage their menstrual health with only makeshift cloths, but now to make matters worse, they only have sufficient fresh water for six months a year. The alternative is washing in salty river water – causing painful and embarrassing skin infections that they do not understand the cause of, and which they have no way to treat. 

Our current work with Prottyashi in Koyra seeks to mitigate these challenges. We are providing climate resilient toilets, which are raised and built with strong materials to protect them from cyclones and flooding. We are also delivering sessions for school children on good sanitation, and separate menstrual health management sessions for both girls and boys.  

As I attended one of these menstrual health management sessions, the connection between climate change and gender equality was stark. Addressing one without the other is a half measure. Education for girls on hygiene is complemented by sessions for boys. Not only to promote understanding, but to help inspire inclusion amongst the community going forwards, and build greater solidarity and resilience. 

A menstrual health management sessions for boys to improve understanding and awareness

This support is essential for ensuring that women and girls don’t develop skin infections, health conditions, or experience stigma which will prevent them from attending school and engaging in livelihood activities. Ultimately, it will preserve the dignity and safety of these women and girls. 

 Our approach is grounded in the recognition that the climate crisis does not act in isolation — it intersects with and exacerbates existing social inequities, often placing a disproportionate burden on women and girls. Therefore, our response is designed to address specific needs and inequities, and promote protection. Prottyashi are leading experts on protection programmes, having run many in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. They champion engaging adolescent boys, to develop confidence, communication and conflict resolution skills. They help boys learn what it means to be a good man in the camp, with a focus on respecting and protecting women and girls.  

This is our first initiative with Prottyashi in Koyra. During the programme, we are learning more from the girls about what issues they are facing, and what solutions they want to implement. What we and Prottyashi would really like to do, with more funding, is a longer-term programme. In addition to continued sanitation support, we want to address other challenges around safe water including failing livelihoods. By providing materials and training, we want to support girls in the community to create and sell reusable sanitary products, and provide a sustainable way to wash them safely.   

But what we saw in Koyra is not an anomaly. Around the world, women and girls tend to be the most affected by the environmental changes and intensifying disasters brought by the climate crisis. When disasters strike, the likelihood that somebody will live or die is determined by their access to early warning messages, education about disaster preparedness, shelters where they feel safe – and so often, women are less likely to have these than men. Sometimes this is extreme; 90% of the fatalities following cyclone Gorky in 1991 in Bangladesh were women. And there is significant evidence that the climate crisis is increasing many forms of gender-based violence, including forced marriages and sexual violence.  

Leaving Koyra, I was struck by the extent of the challenges faced by this community. Elsewhere in Bangladesh, we saw the amount of vital support that is being provided for the Rohingya communities. Here, people face many of the same challenges, but  are left without resources to be able to build their own resilience. I am really excited that World Jewish Relief has found a new partner with so much expertise, and proud that we are supporting them to implement their very first programme in Koyra. Moving forward, the lessons that we learn here will help us to strengthen our support for women and girls, across all of our climate resilience programmes around the world.