Climate Change, Disasters, and Gender-Based Violence: An Overview of Bangladesh’s Policies Status

In recent years, the frequency and intensity of natural disasters have increased due to climate change. While climate change poses one of the biggest threats to humanity, its impacts are not felt equally across all populations. Climate change exacerbates structural inequalities, including existing gender discrimination and disparities between men and women, particularly in developing countries.

Women and girls are among the most vulnerable groups during and after natural disasters. According to UN Environment Worldwide, 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. As the frequency of these disasters increases, so do the physical and socioeconomic vulnerabilities of women and girls, including the risk of gender-based violence. The heightened risks of gender-based violence women and girls face during and after natural disasters take many forms, including domestic violence, physical violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, child marriage, and trafficking.

In Bangladesh, 71% of women experienced increased abuse during natural disasters such as floods, compared to what they faced beforehand, with 52.3% of them enduring physical violence according to a study conducted by ActionAid, in 2007. Furthermore, gender-based violence surged by 65% in the areas affected by Cyclone Amphan (UN Women, 2020).

Global research indicates that women are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence during rescue and rehabilitation activities. For instance, women in refugee camps fear sexual assault, and in extreme situations, sexual abuse and rape occur in shelters. In cyclone shelters, women often refrain from seeking assistance due to fear of assault. Overcrowded conditions with inadequate personal space and sanitation facilities exacerbate these issues, leaving women without menstrual hygiene facilities, worsening reproductive health, and at risk of sexual harassment, especially when using toilets at night.

In addition to immediate effects, natural disasters have long-term repercussions that influence gender-based violence. For example, the loss of income can lead to frustration among men, resulting in physical assaults on their wives.

Climate challenges faced by families in rural Bangladesh act as a push factor for child marriage (Human Rights Watch, 2014). Child marriage rates rise due to school closures and economic insecurity during and after natural disasters. Parents often marry off their daughters at an early age to protect them from harm amid the stress of natural disasters. Early marriage puts young girls at high risk of gender-based violence from their husbands and in-laws.

Natural disasters also heighten the risk of human trafficking. According to UNOCD in Bangladesh, incidents of human trafficking increased in districts affected by Cyclone Sidr in 2007. Similarly, human trafficking surged in Nepal after the 1990 earthquake.

Since 1973, 5th June has been celebrated as World Environment Day, led by the UN Environment Programme, to drive action on environmental issues. I believe we must take this day as an opportunity to raise awareness and promote action on the impact of climate change on women, highlighting the gender-based violence women and girls face during and after natural disasters.

In Bangladesh, there is no specific policy focused on protecting women from violence during or after disasters or in combating climate change. However, given the mounting evidence of the gendered impact of climate change, we must try to draw the government’s attention to this issue. Local-level policy implementation authorities need to be reminded of existing policies aimed at protecting women and girls from gender-based violence.