By Kathinka Evertsen
“Those who lived here used to have a lot of land and wealth. With time, the river has taken away all of their land. Some people have built their houses again and again. But what will they live on? Again the house is washed away ” (Mustafa, Bhola Slum, Dhaka, August 17, 2014).
The Bhola district is located in the southern part of Bangladesh, a country which is ranked as one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change. The southern part of Bangladesh is known to be especially vulnerable. The Bhola district is no exception. Situated where freshwater from the rivers meets saltwater from the Bay of Bengal, the district is exposed both to the activity of two rivers, as well as to tidal changes and cyclones from the ocean.
It has long been established by science that the poorest segment of society are often the most prone to negative consequences of climate change. On the Bhola Island, fisher communities live in close proximity to the river where land is cheaper. This allows them to live close to their livelihood. At the same time, this location makes them vulnerable to river bank erosion, which, according to villagers, has been increasing in recent years.
Migration is increasingly perceived as a potential adaptation strategy to more intense and frequent environmental stressors. When investigating situations of environmental stress, gender analyses carried out in South Asia tend to focus on how women are more vulnerable than men, and are inclined to portray women as victimized and passive, trapped in unfavorable social structures of female seclusion. While not questioning the findings of such research, I argue that there may be a blindness to women’s ability to influence their own destiny, causing women to be overlooked as active agents in environmental migration literature.
River bank erosion can be both a slow and a sudden process. Over time, water softens large parts of the soil, which will suddenly break off and fall into the water. At the same time, the river is constantly taking small bites of the river bank, slowly eating its way into farmlands and through homes. Sometimes people are able to move before everything is lost. Other times they are caught by surprise. “We didn’t know the river erosion would affect us so we built our house in this place,” Samira*, a young woman who has migrated to Dhaka with her daughter and husband, explained, indicating with her hands the distance from the river. “But then the river destroyed our house so we moved to another place and that was ruined too, again and again.”
Her story is a well known story for most people living alongside the river in the northern part of the Bhola Island. Many choose to migrate. When a household has lost everything, it often happens that the whole household will move to an urban area.
However, most households want to stay. So when the river is starting to cut close, one or a few household members often go to urban areas in order to earn and save up money for a new plot of land in preparation for the day they might have to move. Many go to the Bhola slum in the capital, Dhaka, which is largely inhabited by people from the same northern part of Bhola.
Gender is generally believed to heavily influence an individual’s migration experience. However, this has not yet gained much attention within the research field of environment and migration. Instead, most research concerning gender and climate change has thus far focused on the larger vulnerabilities of women. It has been firmly established that women are more vulnerable because i) women constitute a larger share of the poorest strata of society, ii) because women are more dependent for their livelihoods on natural resources than men, iii) and lastly because social, economic and political barriers hamper women’s adaptive capacity. In line with this narrative, most research on environmental migration and gender focuses on women being left behind when male household members migrate.
The stories I was told during my stay with the Bhola community suggested an alternative reality. Women do migrate in large numbers from the Bhola district to the Bhola slum in Dhaka, both with and without other family members. And they are in no way passive observers in the decision to migrate. Rather, many men I talked to explained that it was a woman in their household who had suggested that the family should migrate. Nahar,* a 35 year old woman now living in the Bhola slum with her husband and five children, recalled how she had made her husband go with her to Dhaka, “I said, ‘I won’t stay here, I am going to go to Dhaka so I can feed my kids. If I need to, I will go to work myself so we can eat.’ I said that and made him understand, and we came [to Dhaka].”
Others went on their own, ignoring objections by other family members as Seema,* a 17-year old girl working in a garment factory in Mirpur, says, “I decided on my own. My father said: ‘No, we have raised you this far. We are going to arrange your marriage.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to get married, I want to work.’ They said, ‘You don’t need to work’. Then I said I would do it myself. They asked me how I would get to Dhaka. I had a mobile phone and told them I would sell it and get money. Then I sold the phone and got money from that.”
These stories, of migrating women of the Bhola community, suggest that the emphasis on women as vulnerable may have caused a blindness to female agency. At the same time, the fact that women are migrating does not in any way counter the fact that they are also more vulnerable than their male counterparts. This includes not only vulnerability to environmental stressors, but also larger challenges attached to women’s migration experiences.
The challenges women face are linked to social norms, stigmatizing women who leave the safe sphere of the home to work alongside men, often in the garment factories.
Furthermore, women still have to take care of their household tasks, creating a double workload. The women I talked to in the Bhola slum expressed frustration with this increased burden. Nasreen,* a young garment worker, explained, “Men don’t get sick in the same way and they don’t have to come and work at home. They go to work and eat. All the problems are for women: We need to cook and serve, wake up early in the morning, work. [Women] go to bed at midnight or 1 am, and then need to wake up at 3 or 4 am to cook. That’s why they feel sick.”
Because taking care of the home is at the core of female responsibilities, male household members will often require an assurance that wage work will not compromise such tasks before permitting their women to earn a wage.“I told her that if she can manage to work, then she should,” one male slum-dweller recalled. Adding the social stigma to this double burden, it is evident that women are not facing a double, but a triple burden when they decide to take up wage work.
In view of these stories told, more research is needed concerning the role of women in environmental migration. This is imperative for several reasons. First, for migration to be successful as an alternative livelihood strategy, it should be pro-active and voluntary, rather than a forced, ‘last-resort’ survival strategy. Furthermore, only when women are also acknowledged as agents in the migration process can their specific needs be addressed to better facilitate female migration in the future.
*All names in the article have been changed to protect the privacy of the subjects.
Read Kathika Evertsen’s full thesis: «I lifted an anchor by coming here». An analysis of how gender influences perceived options for adaptive migration in a Bangladeshi community.