Flying over Bangladesh, when you look down on the dispersal of land and water, you realise how vulnerable we are to extreme weather. It is a bird's eye view of the dire effects of rising sea levels.
After a year of Amphan cyclone, its devastating effects remain present in debilitated areas of Asasuni, Satkhira. To this day, hundreds of families are still coming to grips with the loss of homes and access to safe water.
As heavy rainfall becomes more erratic with the onset of more frequent events like floods, cyclones, and landside, it places the country seventh on the climate vulnerability index. By the end of 2050, Bangladesh is expected to lose 11% of its lands to the rising sea level. In its pitfall are 28% of the population who lives on the coast.
Living in a resource-stressed country, this is a disaster in the making.
But the calamity of the situation does not stop here. It affects one of the most vulnerable age groups, adolescents, who are often the silent victims of these adversities. It is not only an environmental issue, because it costs the safety and security of young girls.
Vumika Sarkar is a 12-year-old girl living in the coastal embankments of Asasuni, who had to move twice in her lifetime due to erratic climate change. Her home, built merely from a bamboo shaft, collapsed due to heavy rainfall and flood. For one year now, her family is making ends meet by living in a tent.
Uttaran, an NGO working with communities from Satkhira, reported that around 602 families were displaced and 22,500 families migrated elsewhere. On top of that, reconstruction has been more challenging in the time of the coronavirus pandemic. Many are still managing on the meager income from day to day jobs while bearing the family's living costs.
Living in the centre of climate breakdown, the intrusion of high saline water is adding more risks to her living condition. Families like Vumika's has little to no option but to consume increasing levels of salty water for drinking, cooking, or maintaining hygiene.
In Asasuni, most families depend on ponds or tube wells to fetch water to sustain their livelihoods. A recent survey from UNDP reported that 73% of the people living in coastal upazilas depend on unsafe saline water.
Realising that there's no option for safe water poses an additional layer of challenge for adolescent girls and women to maintain menstrual hygiene. Typically, girls from the community resort to using menstruation clothes when they go through their cycle. But, the repeated washing of menstrual cloth using saline water is putting them under threats of myriad infections and other reproductive problems.
"When cyclone Amphan hit our area, an NGO gave us a few pads at first. But it was only that one time in the last 12 months," says Keya, 17. For Keya buying sanitary pads is a luxury her family cannot afford. A prevalent crisis faced by many girls living in the villages.
On top of growing up in an unstable environment, education for the majority of adolescents came to a halt with no indication of online classes during the pandemic. Due to cyclone Amphan and the ongoing pandemic, access to basic necessities like food, water, and security further exacerbated the living condition. Now, these girls are in a losing battle against extreme poverty.
It is a silent burden mostly felt by adolescent girls as young as ten years old. One of the more detrimental drawbacks of these circumstances is putting young girls at an increased risk of child marriage.
In the last 10 months, the government stopped 86 child marriages in Satkhira but more than 2,000 child marriages managed to transpire. 95% of those adolescents were attending schools; commonly they are between 7th and 10th grade.
Unpredictable weather, unstable homes, no access to safe water are causing havoc in the lives of young girls every minute. Yet, their voice is rarely included in the fight against climate change. There is a bleak sense of general acceptance of their circumstances, that they are born to suffer.
"We have many NGOs working around Satkhira who thrive by empowering youth. But it's difficult to guarantee the same for adolescents", says Zahid Amin, programme officer of Uttaran. "Since they are under 18, nothing can be done unless and until we receive parents' consent," he explained.
In line with the Sustainable Development Goals, the government has set out frameworks like National Strategy for Adolescents Health. It highlights the rights of adolescents to participate and access information that directly contributes to their health by 2030. Granted, this sounds promising. But, they still widely remain invisible when impacted by climate change.
The widening knowledge gap between policymakers and the reality continues to be confusing. So far, Bangladesh has more than 60 sectoral policies, action plans, and strategies for environmental administration. Yet, they are not legally binding so these progressive notions exist to no avail. Ultimately, it feeds into an already chaotic system where girls don't have access to the knowledge about safeguarding their health in times of climate disaster.
"However, there is a way." continues Amin. "There are local Kishore clubs for 14 to 18-year-olds where they assemble twice a week and discuss sanitation, menstruation, and harassment." It is a great alternative. But in conversations with adolescent girls, it is found that some never heard of such community practices.
Empowering adolescents has been a challenge for Bangladesh. Some of them are too young to grasp its urgency. Some of them lack accessibility, and their development gets stuck in a rut. Unfortunately, they merely remain a face for the statistics we see on paper.
But there is still another way to mitigate the crisis. An improved access to information and knowledge about climate risks and adaptation could greatly reduce its harmful impacts. This could be turned into a reality if there was better coordination between the government and the NGOs.
To put it another way, it can fill the gap between policies and accountability to ensure adolescent-centred climate adaptations. If not, the gap between what needs to be done and the current level of awareness is becoming more and more absurd.
The author is a research associate at the Bangladesh Forum for Legal & Humanitarian Affairs (BFLHA).
Bangladesh Forum for Legal and Humanitarian Affairs (BFLHA) in partnership with The Business Standard arranged an op-ed writing competition this year. This article is one of the winning entries of that competition