Katie Nguyen – WNN SOAPBOX
(WNN) OPINION Bangladesh: When Cyclone Sidr battered Bangladesh in 2007 hundreds of women and children died.
Not because they didn’t know there was a big storm coming, but simply because the men weren’t home to give them permission to leave the house and seek safety elsewhere. Paralysed by the shame of being seen alone in public, many women could not save themselves. It seems almost too tragic to contemplate.
Since then, however, the Bangladesh Red Crescent and British Red Cross have been working with the country’s coastal communities to encourage women’s needs to be taken into greater account.
Through a project to boost disaster preparedness, they have enlisted influential religious and community leaders to help dispel, for example, the stigma around women being unaccompanied by male members of their families.
They have also provided women with training on how to respond to cyclones – smoothing the way with the men first – and recruited female volunteers to spread the word.
“The coastal areas are very poor and the communities don’t have much access to information. The women don’t know their own rights even,” project leader Ali Asgar told me.
“Literacy is very poor. In the coastal areas it is probably less than 35 percent,” he noted.
Simple, life-saving tips are passed on to other women. For example, they are told to change out of their long saris into baggy trousers to make escaping from a cyclone easier.
They are taught to bury documents, money, dried food and drinking water in a bucket attached with a rope to an empty plastic bottle. This gives them a head start in resuming their lives once the cyclone passes, the Red Cross says.
The women also have a chance to voice their concerns.
At one women’s forum, some women complained that a lack of electricity in cyclone-resilient shelters made them feel unsafe, so solar panels were installed, Asgar said.
There have also been efforts to observe purdah – the strict separation of men and women – in cyclone shelters.
“We have worked with the most vulnerable groups – particularly pregnant women and children. Women are very vulnerable for a number of reasons, including their long, traditional dress and long hair,” said Nazma, a housewife who helps circulate information about cyclones and how to prepare for disasters.
“Also, women will not go outside even when they receive information that a cyclone is coming unless their husband tells them to, and women can’t swim because they have not been allowed to learn,” the Red Cross quoted her as saying.
“Men are in an advanced position, but we are all human beings. God gave us the same number of hands and feet, the same physical strength, and we are really the same, which is why we are trying to change the situation.”
Katie Nguyen is an AlertNet correspondent based in London. She previously spent five years in Kenya covering east Africa for Reuters, including assignments to Southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tanzania.
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