Razia sits in the doorway of her one-room hut, surrounded by her few possessions and cradling a child – one of three she must care for alone, since her husband left to find work a year earlier.

Living in a community in Sundarban, four hours south of Kolkata in West Bengal, made up of families displaced by natural disasters, daily life is a struggle financially and maintaining the health of herself and her children often difficult.

“During the Aila cyclone my house broke down and I was pregnant at the time,” she said. “I was entitled to receive medicines but I did not.”

“My husband went to an outstation to work and never came back.”

“It has been very difficult to procure food and send children to school ever since. I’m not able to send my children to school, not able to afford medicines or even basic amenities like food.

“My house is in a dilapidated state. I am feeling very helpless at the moment.”

The climate crisis is one of the biggest problems of our times but there are places more at risk than others, such as the coastal cities, and sections of the community who are more at risk – women and girls.

While rising sea levels, warmer seas and the changing patterns of weather are frequently in the news, less talked about globally is the disproportionate impact on women, both in numbers and levels of violence and abuse.

There is an urgent need to look at the climate crisis beyond the lens of it just being an environmental problem. According to UN Environment, it is estimated 80 per cent of people displaced because of climate change are women.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet said: “When women are displaced, they are at a greater risk of violence, including sexual violence.”

There are countless instances of rapes, sexual harassment, child marriage, and unintended pregnancies because of the lack of medical care available.

Razia, 25, is just one such victim of multiple natural disasters made worse by climate change.

She has lived in the small coastal village of Satjelia since her house was destroyed by Cyclone Aila in 2009.

After Cyclone Yaas hit the area last year, her husband went away to work at an outstation and hasn’t returned.

Dr Sajal Roy, a research fellow at the Centre for Social Impact based at the UNSW Business School, has actively researched and studied southwest of Bangladesh and parts of India to understand the medium to long-term impact of climate change.

Feeding the entire family was really problematic and so the sacrifice of one child seemed to be justified in that situation.

In his book, Climate Change and Gendered Livelihoods in Bangladesh, he explores the effects of Cyclone Aila on two ethnic communities: Munda, an indigenous group and Shora, a Muslim group residing near the Sundarban forest in Bangladesh.

During his research on the Shora community of Bangladesh, he found there has been a strong, long-established patriarchy inspired by, what he called, a misinterpretation of Islam.

In 2018, he was doing ethnographic fieldwork surveying 1,314 Muslim households, where he found instances of rape and sexual harassment.

“Many women used to cry as they were brutally raped. But they were unable to identify who the rapists were,” said Dr Roy.

“When the NGOs arrive for the humanitarian relief work, I have heard women experiencing sexual harassment from the representatives of the local government in terms of the distribution of the relief goods. For instance, if a woman doesn’t spend a night with the local chairperson, she will not be enlisted for the disaster scheme financial aid. These incidents are quite common but are never reported.”

Roy said women are not politically empowered to raise their voice against the injustices happening, which he said were a disaster on their own and an infringement of human rights.


Margaret Alston, professor of social work at the University of Newcastle, recently undertook a three-year study in Bangladesh where she surveyed over 600 people from three districts.

In her study she found various instances of gender discrimination, including an increase in the number of forced child marriages. In some cases poverty was so extreme families would decide on getting a girl child married as there would be one less mouth to be fed.

“Feeding the entire family was really problematic and so the sacrifice of one child seemed to be justified in that situation. I am not saying it was right by any means; it was appalling but people were caught in significant traps around post disaster survival,” said Alston.

But other than the post disaster survival strategies what is more important is the early warning systems set up according to the needs of the people in a particular area.

Women and girls are most affected due to climate change. They are the ones who bear the brunt of any climate crisis.

“Access to an early warning system is very critical. Women told us how they want to receive the information as they may not have mobile phones. They wanted information coming to them about everything that was happening,” added Alston.

An increase of salinity in water due to rising sea levels, cyclones, and storms is also contributing to the growing crisis.

Drinking water across coastal areas of Bangladesh has been contaminated with salt water to varying degrees.

Mohan Kumar Mondal, the executive director of LEDARS, an NGO working for social, and environmental development of people residing in the southwest coastal region of Bangladesh told Central News the resources where people get surface water from places such as ponds are increasingly contaminated by saltwater.

“It is very difficult to remove the saline water from the pond and women have no choice but to use the water available,” he said. “Women, because of only saline water available in their area, are not able to maintain hygiene during their menstrual period.”



A report by Oxfam International found in the Boxing Day Asian tsunami, up to four times more women died compared to men.

Data from the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu reported 73 per cent female deaths, as reported by The Guardian.

Debanjana Choudhuri who is an advocacy specialist, working on interlinkages between gender and climate action, said: “Women and girls are most affected due to climate change. They are the ones who bear the brunt of any climate crisis.

“The reasons attributed as per the report by Oxfam stated that when the tsunami hit, they ran to their households in order to take care of their families, elderly people and young ones whereas men actually went away and ran to save their lives.

“But women, because of their caregiving roles which are so predominantly biased in India, ran to take care rather than defending themselves. Or it was just that men were faster in running.

“However, it is ironical that when a climate crisis happens, women and girls would be the most affected and the next most affected would be the young boys.”


In addition to the physical impact of disasters, a research study published in the Journal for Industrial Ecology comparing single men and women in Sweden on the basis of their emissions, found men responsible for a higher proportion.

The study included parameters like food and drinks, holidays, furnishings, healthcare, tobacco, clothes and shoes, transport, dwellings, recreation and culture and other products and services.

Calculated in terms of annual kilograms of greenhouse gas per person, it found a male’s expenditure on goods and services causes 16 per cent more emissions than women.

Yet women continue to bear the brunt of climate-induced disasters.

“One basically, in one’s head, has to stand in a post disaster site and think what do I need to make my life manageable here,” said Alston.

Main image by Debabrata Mondal.