This study on women and girls’ participation in community-based disaster risk management in Bangladesh is part of Plan International’s Inclusive Community Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (ICDRM) project. The project, funded by Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, aims to increase the level of inclusion and participation of women, girls and marginalized groups in DRM. In cooperation with local NGO Jago Nari, the project has successfully set up community-based organizations (CBOs) in Bhola, a rural region in southern Bangladesh that is particularly prone to flooding and cyclones. These CBOs are mandated to have gender parity as a first step to including women and girls in decision-making and planning for disaster risk reduction (DRR) at the community level. The CBOs also provide training on gender equality, women’s and girls’ rights and inclusiveness of marginalized groups in disaster planning and response.
The study objective is to understand how successful CBOs are in addressing the gender inequalities which result in women and girls suffering more than men and boys during disasters, the extent to which social norms and gender barriers persist within DRM once women are included in CBOs and the extent to which this inclusion has a positive effect on women and girls’ capacity to mitigate and survive disasters. Extensive qualitative data was collected to understand the root causes and marginalization of women in both society and during disasters, the specific barriers that prevent their inclusion in DRM and the extent and nature of their participation in DRM committees. The study also assessed several Bhola communities’ perceptions of the CBO’s setup by Jago Nari and Plan International, in terms of their contributions to providing a safe and inclusive space for women and their contributions to improving their communities’ resilience and adaptation to disasters for all people, including the most marginalized.
Finally, the study assessed the extent to which CBOs serve as bridges for vulnerable and stigmatized groups, such as elders, children, people with disabilities and the transgender community, and the extent to which CBO membership has become more diverse, along with how trainings on inclusivity and human rights has impacted perceptions and behavior towards the most marginalized.
The study found that overall, the CBOs have made an initial impact on gender equality and inclusion in DRM in Bhola. A significant part of this appears to be due to the fact that such CBOs have previously not existed, and women’s subjugation in Bangladeshi society prevented any pathways for them to become involved in DRM. The CBOs have successfully opened the door for women and girls to be involved in DRM, even though the actual nature and extent of their participation recapitulate existing gender norms, with women taking on gendered roles in disaster preparation, mitigation and response.
For example, it was consistently highlighted that both men and women found women’s greatest asset in disasters is their ability to mobilize other women, girls and marginalized groups, groups previously left in the home while the men evacuate by themselves.
The recognition of women and girls’ contribution to DRM is therefore seen through a practical and operational lens, and their involvement is seen to be positive as it results in more lives saved or less damage wrought by flooding. Men and male youth interviewed in the study frequently commented on this aspect, while also recognizing that women and girls do indeed suffer more during disasters, and indeed recognizing that this is largely due to women’s heavily restricted roles, where they are dependent on men and are mostly confined at home, unable to play a meaningful role in public life.
The extent to which CBOs in DRM can achieve meaningful gender transformation is yet to be seen, as the CBOs are still in their early days, but it will likely be through increasing recognition of women and girls’ value and contributions during disasters that will pave the way for women and girls to begin to claim greater agency and leadership in community-based processes and decision-making.