Gender and WASH in Emergency: What happens when a super cyclone hits at the height of a pandemic?

7th September 2020

Professor Mahbuba Nasreen, Institute of disaster management and vulnerability studies (IDMVS),  University of Dhaka

On 23rd May, Prof. Mahbuba Nasreen developed and co-facilitated a training on gender and WASH in Emergency for the UNICEF WASH Cluster. In light of the two disasters that recently hit coastal Bangladesh, cyclone Amphan and COVID-19, she shares key insights from the training and her own research from the past three decades.

Enhancing capacity on gender and WASH in emergency: an imperative in the new normal

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing serious socio-economic and psychological disruptions across all segments of the population; however, many of the outcomes fall disproportionately on women (compared to men). Under the ‘new normal’, gender differences in terms of roles, affordability and accessibility of water are making women more vulnerable.

Over the past three decades, my research in the field of disaster management has documented that despite valuable contributions in building resilience for their household and community, women and girls become disproportionally more vulnerable in emergency situations. In most developing countries, women and girls are generally responsible for the collection and management of water. During an emergency, maintaining sanitation and hygiene practices becomes an additional challenge, due to the lack of or shortage of water. However, efforts to address water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in emergencies are limited and often inadequate or at infancy stages.

In light of addressing this gap, on 23rd March 2020, I developed a day long training module on ‘Gender and WASH in Emergency’ for the UNICEF WASH Cluster and their gender team. As the Key Facilitator, I included three co-facilitators at the sessions: Monishankar Sarker, Shamima Prodhan (who are both also part of the REACH team) and Kamal Hossain (Chief of Party of The Girls Empowerment through Education and WASH) who shared his experience of WASH programmes in Ethiopia. A report has been prepared and submitted to UNICEF and the Government of Bangladesh’s Department of Public Health and Engineering.

Woman & man preparing cyclone platform in Satkhira; photo credit: COAST

Navigating two disasters: cyclone Amphan and COVID-19

Bangladesh is recognized internationally for its disaster management initiatives. However, gender-specific WASH responses in the context of emergency management and risk reduction have received limited attention. This has become more visible as super cyclone Amphan hit coastal regions of Bangladesh and India in May 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amphan washed away embankments, caused an increase in salinity intrusion, devastated standing crops, houses, livelihoods, trees, livestock, poultry, other assets and belongings. More than 350,000 houses have been damaged or destroyed and over 176,000 hectares of agricultural land including standing crops, vegetable and fruit, thousands of trees have been uprooted and fish farms worth approximately 37 million US dollars have been damaged, which will be largely borne by poor people, compounding their challenges in coping with two disasters.

With 2.4 million people being evacuated, maintaining social distancing was severely compromised. Prior to the super cyclone, the Government shared warnings and signals as a usual practice. The Government attempted to make all the responses functional through the country’s long-established cyclone preparedness programme (CPP) and disaster risk management. Additional measures have also been taken to try to maintain social distancing; for example, academic institutions or schools, which were closed due to pandemic, turned to cyclone shelters.

The disproportionate impact on women and girls

However, during the pandemic, people were anxious about moving to often overcrowded cyclone shelters. Inadequate access to water, toilet and sanitation facilities meant that women and girls in particular were reluctant to join shelters, with menstrual management being a major challenge. They also faced increased insecurity, lack of privacy and the necessity to adhere to the cultural norms of parda (veiling practice) in overcrowded places. In addition, the cyclone came less than a week before Muslim festival Eid, occurred in May, 25, for which women usually cook meals for family members.

Previous research we led on Sexual and Reproductive Health during Emergency indicates that reproductive health-related support to women and girls adversely reduces during an emergency. The COVID-19 epidemic combined with the cyclone made it harder for women and girls to maintain sexual and reproductive health. Moreover, they faced increased risks of gender-based violence while locked down in their homes.

Women walking long distance in Satkhira, photo credit: COAST

Gender and WASH in emergencies: gaps and priorities

Gender-based vulnerabilities in Bangladesh’s coastal polders, especially in water sector, have already been documented by the IDMVS-REACH research team; however, it requires the attention of more stakeholders to mainstream effort.

The provision of adequate, safe and accessible water, sanitation and hygiene, especially menstrual hygiene management is a prerequisite for addressing gender-based needs and interests during a disaster. However, we have evidence that it was not addressed properly in cyclone shelters. Simply providing water and sanitation facilities will not by itself guarantee their optimal use or improve public health. Attention must be paid on both practical needs as well as the strategic interests of women with long term planning on gender and emergency, with special focus on WASH in emergency.

Understanding women’s needs and the specific challenges they face, is absolutely essential in assessing, designing and implementing appropriate water, sanitation and hygiene programme for the affected community. These vital institutions need to be more focused on coordinated efforts in ensuring gender inclusive WASH responses in emergencies.

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