As Bangladesh battles COVID-19 and the aftermath of Super Cyclone Amphan, women’s organisations lead their communities through recovery

“When the first storm hit, I knew that this time around it would be a bigger challenge for the women in Satkhira. Between a pandemic and a disaster, we didn’t know what to worry about more. But the starting point in helping these communities is to engage women in the response and planning,” said Shampa Goswami, who leads ‘Prerona Nari Unnayan Sanggathan’ (Prerona), a community-based women’s organisation in the Satkhira district in the southern tip of Bangladesh. Prerona works with climate-vulnerable communities, particularly women, to build livelihood opportunities and awareness in early warning, disaster preparedness and response. 

Goswami was referring to the super cyclone “Amphan” that ravaged the coasts of India and Bangladesh on 20 May.

Satkhira district was one of the hardest hit areas in the country. The cyclone washed away embankments, mud homes and fisheries, which thousands of families relied upon for their livelihoods, and sanitation infrastructures collapsed.

Prior to Amphan, the COVID-19 outbreak had already brought Bangladesh to a grinding halt on 26 March 2020. With 68,504 cases reported and thousands more losing their livelihoods because of the lockdown measures, for marginalised communities living in disaster-prone areas, the challenges are compounded.

Organisations like Prerona and women leaders like Goswami are vital actors on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, as well as climate disasters.

When Amphan hit, Goswami and her team swung into action; helping with evacuation of around 150 women and men to cyclone shelters.

“Many people did not want to leave their houses because first, they were not sure about the high intensity of the cyclone and second, they feared getting infected by COVID-19,” explained Goswami “My team and I convinced them to go to the shelter to save their lives and to wear masks to protect themselves from the disease. I also turned on the radio [so that they could hear, first-hand] about the intensity of Amphan. At that time, the danger rating was at 10 for Satkhira. I was also scared for myself and my team, as we were going door-to-door to evacuate people, in the middle of a pandemic. But it gave me peace of mind knowing that we were able to evacuate at least 150 people.”

For the next two days, the Prerona team comprising of 15 women and 3 men continued to visit the cyclone shelters, distributing food packets and masks. They talked to the people living in the cyclone shelters about the importance of wearing masks at all times and maintaining physical distancing.

Maintaining physical distancing was a major challenge in a densely occupied shelter. “There were around 100-120 people sheltered in 5-7 rooms. In one cyclone shelter around 15-20 people stayed in one room, with 4-5 families who knew each other very well not wanting to be separated,” recalled Goswami.

Some 12,078 cyclone shelters were set up throughout the coastal districts of Bangladesh, and some 2.4 million people were evacuated to cyclone shelters.

Asif, a young volunteer, sprays disinfectant onto the hands of people taking shelter at Munshiganj Government Primary School, turned into a cyclone shelter in anticipation of Cyclone Amphan, in Munshiganj District in Central Bangladesh on 20 May 2020. Photo: UNICEF/Gabura Mohiruddin

Knowing that the poorest and most vulnerable were lacking access to affordable personal protection equipment, Prerona also mobilised 250 women, including widows, women with disabilities and women heads of households to make almost 42,500 masks and protective gear. The women were trained in batches of five, maintaining physical distancing, to learn new skills and earn some income from the sale of protective gear.

Cultivating women’s leadership is critical in times like these. UN Women, through the National Resilience Program and the “EmPower: Women for Climate-Resilient Societies” project, has been training and supporting organisations like Prerona in building skills and leadership so that they can play active roles in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

 “Organisations like Prerona bring the unique advantage of being present at the intersection of gender equality, climate change, disaster risk reduction and livelihoods,” explained Dilruba Haider, Program Specialist, with UN Women in Bangladesh. “Women bring a breadth of solutions when it comes to adapting to climate change and responding to disasters. Their distinctive knowledge, skills and networks can help communities prepare, respond to and bounce back better. Prerona has been working in Satkhira for six years, recognised and accepted by the communities. Supporting and amplifying the voices of civil society leaders like them can have a snowball effect on how women and communities fare through this crisis,” she added.

As communities slowly return to their homes, massive reconstruction and rebuilding awaits them. While the threat of COVID-19 is still present, the Bangladesh Government has ceased lockdown measures since 31 May. Even as the economy starts opening, and trains and ferries start running again, business isn’t the same and livelihood opportunities are still limited. Prerona has just distributed seeds to 125 women in the community to grow food crops so that there is some food security for their families.

“The hard work begins now to recover better and stronger. Women in farming, fishing, agriculture and small enterprises that are especially vulnerable to climate change, have all lost their livelihoods, and this is where the support is needed,” said Goswami.” We need support to engage in economic activities. For instance, if we could get support to purchase raw materials to prepare hand sanitiser, women could sell that in the local markets, along with masks and sanitary napkins that they are making.” The Prerona team is determined to stay engaged with emergency response interventions, because they know their communities and they can bring their needs to the forefront of recovery efforts.

“Prerona Nari Unnayan Sanggathan” is one of 56 grassroots women’s organisations that UN Women is working with in five of the most disaster-prone areas of Bangladesh to make sure women’s perspectives, needs and leadership are fully incorporated into disaster risk reduction and crisis management.