Bangladesh's women learn the art of flood survival

2 February 2009


Sahena leading the weekly women’s groupSahena Begum lives in the village of Kanderpara in northern Bangladesh. Located in the Ganges basin, the village is no stranger to serious flooding and, with the reality of climate change bearing down on it, the future is likely to bring even more extreme weather.

However, despite the threat of yet worse floods, Sahena and her fellow villagers have never been better prepared. The reason? Special training sessions, paid for by DFID, that have put Sahena's women's group at the centre of the community's flood survival strategy.

A plan of action

Through the training, the women have not only learnt about the risks and impacts of natural disasters, but have been shown how, through agricultural techniques and other practical measures, they can increase their chances of weathering future storms.

Sahena putting the finishing touches to a portable clay ovenNow, if the area is deluged, a plan of action is in place, as are the resources needed to see the storm out. After being notified of any flood warnings through a radio supplied by the training providers, the women will first of all call a meeting to alert the other villagers to the situation. Children, the elderly and anyone who is unwell will then be escorted to the village shelter, which the group has built on a raised plinth a ten-minute walk away. 

Across the village, encouraged by the women's group, people have begun to raise the foundations of their homes above flood-levels. This ensures that life can continue – that livestock and possessions are saved – when waters sweep through.

The training has also taught members of the group how to build portable clay ovens. When floods strike, they often bring food shortages and hunger with them. The ovens, which are stored high-up, out of harm's way, are a way of keeping the village well fed when fields and crops are lying under water. Stored alongside the ovens are wood for fuel and supplies of preserved vegetables.

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Preventing suffering

In Bangladesh, it's usually up to women to collect water and fuel, grow and prepare food, and care for their families. So when floods come and these tasks become more difficult, a major burden falls on women's shoulders.

Sahena recognises the importance of the village's women understanding how to cope with floods: "If we are not aware, then the whole family suffers in many ways. But if we are aware, then families can be saved from many losses. Diseases can be avoided, poultry can be saved, children are properly looked after and don’t suffer from diseases, and the women themselves are saved from a lot of suffering."

"At the beginning (of the training) many people in my family did not support me," she adds. "My husband and my husband’s brother tried to stop me." But Sahena refused to be kept down. "The fact that we have united to form this group is a matter of pride for us women," she says. "We are not born to suffer. We are born to fight."

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Facts and stats

  • The women were trained by the Bangladeshi organisation, Gana Unnayan Kendra (GUK), in partnership with Oxfam, with funding provided by DFID.
  • The scheme in Kanderpara is part of Oxfam's River Basin Programme, Bangladesh. Around 1,330 groups in eight districts of northern Bangladesh have received training through the programme.
  • DFID's partnership programme agreement (PPA) with Oxfam provides funding for work in four areas: agricultural scale-up and livelihoods; disaster risk reduction; governance; and young people's understanding of poverty.
  • The work of the Kandarpara Women's Group falls under the heading of Livelihoods and Disaster Risk Reduction. The current programme runs from May 2008 until April 2009.
  • Oxfam's overall PPA with DFID runs from 2008 to 2011 and is worth 27.8 million.

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