Ethnic women were the worst affected by natural disasters that ripped through Bangladesh at different times. And more women died in those calamities when compared to men, with the death rate among females being five times higher than that among their male counterparts.
The intensity of changes in geographical contexts under climate change appears to be devastating for ethnic communities against the backdrop of current ethnicity-based discrimination like low-income opportunities, deprivation and dispossession of lands and equal rights.
The unwillingness of political leadership, social stigma and a lack of awareness led to ethnic communities being deprived of their civil rights, while living in isolated lands made them significantly more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, according to findings of a research, conducted by Disaster Management Watch in association with Christian Aid and Gana Unnayan Kendra (GUK).
On Wednesday, the research paper was revealed at a webinar titled "Identifying the root causes of the intersectional vulnerabilities of gender, climate vulnerability and ethnicity-based discrimination in Bangladesh" organised by The Business Standard, Disaster Management Watch, Christian Aid and GUK.
The research was carried out to enhance the evidence of how gender inequalities, climate risks, and ethnicity-based discrimination intersect to produce specific vulnerabilities that leave ethnic women in selected communities at risk of being left behind in the broader range of development outcomes.
Khadija Leena, associate professor of North South University and led the research, said women are not financially empowered, which has made them more unfortunate than men.
Although ethnic women are taking part in different works, they are being discriminated in wages, she added. Also, they are repeatedly abused physically, sexually and psychologically in workplaces as well as in houses and the community, she added.
The professor said due to slow onset and sudden shocks of climate change – less rainfall and salinity intrusion – livelihood choices and patterns have changed.
Some of the ethnic communities, like Rakhine and Mahato, had to switch their primary livelihood from agriculture (fishing, boating) to day labours. Besides, saltier and toxic logged water after any major flood leaves the ethnic women vulnerable to different health hazards like waterborne diseases.
Thanks to a poor road condition and communication system, they also remain unreachable even during any emergency, said Leena adding that ethnic women face discrimination while availing treatment from the community clinic, even healthcare service providers neglect them providing treatment.
She also said they have to fall victim to eviction and land grabbing most often.
"Our ethnic groups are deprived of their civil rights, and this deprivation further worsens their sufferings. Also, social stigma and a lack of awareness make their life very difficult," Professor Leena said.
Under any climatic stress, ethnic women's coping effects are challenged due to gender relations, empowerment, physical capability and social stigma both within the household and the community. In this regard, Professor Leena put forward some recommendations for the protection of ethnic women groups.
"Cyclone shelters can be built with facilities for women. Infrastructures and communication, along with road condition, need to be improved while a salinity-tolerant agriculture practice can also be promoted."
She also emphasised introducing mobile health services and community-based medical support in remote areas, checking physical, sexual, psychological abuses and ensuring basic rights for them.
Since the livelihood experiences of each of the ethnic minorities are diverse, a policy should be taken based on their regional disparity and experience of climatic stresses.
Professor Leena also recommended that as ethnic women are the worst sufferer in the context of climatic stress and ethnicity-based discrimination, there should be a separate statement or discussion in the national documents like National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) and Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP).
Sanjeeb Drong, general secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, emphasised a policy level inclusion of ethnic communities.
He also demanded an amendment is made to the constitution to recognise the ethnic groups and the formation of a land commission to establish the rights of the indigenous people on the plains.
Meghna Guhothakurta, executive director of Research Initiative Bangladesh, said nature-induced crises, including deforestation and land-sliding, have become more frequent these days.
"Our biodiversity is also being lost, resulting in an acute food crisis," she said, adding, "We should present their discovery which links with nature."
Zakir Hossain, chief executive at Nagorik Uddyog, said the Sustainable Development Goals have made a pledge: no one to be left behind.
To attain that goal, recognition and identity of the ethnic people are needed.
Besides, segregated data on ethnic people and women are required, which is yet to be made, he said, suggesting that the recommendations in the research paper can be taken into consideration.
Amena Mohsin, a professor of International Relations at the Dhaka University, focused on an equal policy to ensure that no one leaves behind, saying "Cultural harmony cannot be established before mitigating inequalities."
Zillur Rahman, joint registrar at Department of Cooperatives, said ethnic communities are the worst sufferers in all disasters.
For doing business, they take costly loans from non-government organisations but lose businesses paying the interests, he added.
He further said ethnic people and their languages are disappearing day by day, and they are being either converted to another religion or displaced.
However, the government is vigilant to save the ethnic communities and has already taken several initiatives, he remarked.
Md Atiqul Huq, director general at Department of Disaster Management, said, "We are making shelters where there will have breastfeeding corners for women and designated ramp for disabled people."
The communication system is also becoming better as the government's policy is to absorb the ethnic groups into the mainstream.
Pankaj Kumar, country director of Christian Aid, delivered the opening remark while Md Bayazid Hasan, managing partner of Disaster Management Watch, announced the conclusion of the webinar.
Morshed Noman, chief reporter of The Business Standard, moderated the programme.