Violence Against Women During Extreme Weather Events: Bangladesh
Author: Xinyu Zheng
October 19, 2023
Bangladesh is frequently discussed in relation to violence against women (VAW) during extreme weather events. Its underlying patriarchal tradition, economic inequality, and extreme weather-prone geographical location expose women and girls to a high risk of gender-based violence. This article will explore VAW during and after extreme weather events, focusing on two specific cases: cyclones in coastal Bangladesh and drought in northern Bangladesh. The article will also highlight examples of interventions aimed at assisting women in coping with VAW and extreme weather.
Violence Against Women in Bangladesh During the Non-Disaster Period
The patriarchal culture is the root of VAW in Bangladesh, granting men superiority over women to access resources and decision-making rights and creating a large gender gap. The United Nations Development Programme and United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women score Bangladesh on the Women’s Empowerment Index (WEI) 0.443 out of 1 and the Global Gender Parity Index (GGPI) 0.526 out of 1 based on 2022 data. Bangladesh was categorized as a country with low women’s empowerment and gender parity, compared with the world average WEI of 0.607 and GGPI of 0.721. . The Human Development Report 2021-2022 ranked Bangladesh 131st place in the Gender Inequality Index .
VAW in Bangladesh is already imminent during the non-disaster period. Men’s socially superior positions contribute to the prevalence of domestic violence in Bangladesh, where husbands are justified to “punish” their wives for delayed dowry or behaviors against them. According to the VAW survey (2015), 54.2% of ever-married women aged above 15 have experienced intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence at least once during their lifetime, and 26.9% of them experienced it in the last 12 months of the survey conducted to date . Parents also consider female children a “burden” and marry them at a young age at a low dowry expense to save family expenses. Among women aged 20 to 40 years, 51.4% were first married or in union before age 18 . Females are often not given the autonomy to choose the timing of their marriages. Cases of violence against women (VAW) in the public domain, such as rape and sexual harassment, have been on the rise, primarily driven by factors like industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, especially when women and girls are employed in garment or marine product factories outside their homes . It is reported that 3% of all women above 15 have experienced sexual violence by non-partner perpetrators during their lifetime . Most victims of non-partner violence did not receive proper physical and mental treatment as they were afraid of the disputation of their families and communities, putting them at risk of being divorced and socially isolated.
A Disaster-prone Country
Bangladesh has been historically troubled by extreme weather. In 2022, Bangladesh ranks 9th out of 193 countries on the World Risk Index, which measures each country’s exposure to disaster risks such as earthquakes, cyclones, floods, droughts, sea-level rise, and tsunamis . Its coastal areas experienced 45 major cyclones between 1965 and 2013 , and its northwestern regions had more than 20 drought conditions in the past 50 years .
Climate change is increasing Bangladesh’s vulnerability to extreme weather events in frequency and severity. In 2015, there were 1,250; 21,704; 5,456; and 105,928 acres of land damaged by drought, flood, storm/tidal surge, and river/coastal erosion, respectively. These numbers soared to 28,548; 40,4501; 7,192; and 317,186 acres in 2021. In comparison, Greece and Malawi, with similar land covers as Bangladesh, reported only about 185,000 acres of land were flooded during Storm Daniel in 2023 and 226,442 acres of cropland damaged by flood in 2019, respectively . Besides, in the North Indian Ocean area, the frequency of extremely severe and higher-category cyclonic storms has been increasing .
As discussed in the introduction article, there is an association between extreme weather and VAW from a global perspective. In Bangladesh, the accelerating extreme weather also poses great threats to women’s safety and human rights. The rest of the article will present two studies to understand the association between extreme weather and VAW and discuss the efforts to improve the circumstances.
Case 1: VAW in Barguna before, during, and after Cyclone Roanu
Rezwana and Pain (2020) studied gender-based violence (GBV) in Barguna, a coastal district of Bangladesh, before, during, and after Cyclone Roanu in 2016 through focus group discussion and individual interviews, revealing a mutually reinforcing relationship between the GBV and cyclone . Consistent with the VAW statistics above, in the non-disaster period, GBV is already perceived by research participants as prevalent and chronic in Barguna. However, VAW became more severe during the most challenging time of extreme weather, as recounted by many research participants.
During Cyclone Roanu in May 2016, Bangladesh's disaster warning system matured, and moving to shelters effectively responded to Barguna inhabitants to avoid death and injuries. However, many female victims of the cyclone reported that they had seen or experienced VAW on their way to or when staying in the shelters. They recalled that some men from neighboring villages pretended to be volunteers to disseminate the disaster warning and took advantage of the chaotic scene to harass and abuse women. Similar incidents of VAW increased when women and girls got lost in the crowd and lost connection with their families. Even worse, the overcrowded shelters without gender consideration exposed women and girls to men from seven to eight villages. Some research participants recounted men in the shelters touched them intentionally and insulted them physically or orally. One victim said a man tore her blouse while walking through the shelter. They also feared being abandoned by their families if they were "disreputed" by non-partner males in the public. Because of the high insecurity, some participants were reluctant to go to shelter ever since, increasing their possibility of becoming the victims of extreme weather events.
After the cyclone, research participants also perceived a higher risk of VAW than usual. According to their recounting, men roamed the impacted area, targeting damaged houses and the women who were traveling to seek relief services. One survivor of VAW described her experience of being sexually assaulted on a trawler in a stormy river. Some participants also recalled that they were forced to engage in illegal relationships or be sexually assaulted to secure some relief distribution. These frightening experiences kept them away from the relief distribution organizations, but some of their husbands still forced them to collect aid from unknown organizations, and domestic violence arose when they refused to. The losses during the cyclone also aggravated the poverty and tension among the families, increasing domestic violence. Women's economic independence was undermined if they lost their sources of income and savings during the disaster, which increased their obedience to domestic violence. Indeed, participants said that they perceived an increase in the frequency of domestic violence after the cyclone.
Case 2: VAW in Badlagaree during the droughts
Droughts are common in north Bangladesh during winter seasons when there are few rainfalls. Hossen et al. (2021) investigated gender-based vulnerability, including the unequal consequences of food accessibility, health status, and violence on females, in Badlagaree village in Gaibandha district, northern Bangladesh, identifying the negative impact of droughts on VAW .
Forty-seven research participants in Badlagaree described their perception of droughts associated with high VAW incidences in focus group discussions. Their discussion revealed that the most significant impact of droughts was crop production deduction and livestock starvation, resulting in less food availability, fewer income sources, aggravated poverty, and higher societal anxiety levels. Consequently, as they said, women must seek employment opportunities, including unsafe ones, alternatives to family farming and household chores. According to some participants, they felt insecure in their positions because of their exposure to factory owners and coworkers and the unseparated toilet facilities, but they had to bear with it due to their fear of losing jobs. Similar to the first case in Barguna, poverty intensified domestic violence as breadwinners, usually men, were depressed and anxious about insufficient money to sustain their livelihoods. 77% of participants reported economic insecurity problems during and after the droughts, and they believed such deteriorated economic conditions increased the VAW.
A coping strategy to extreme weather or a proliferator of VAW
A primary coping strategy for impacted households in Bangladesh to adapt to extreme weather is to marry young girls    . Research participants recounted that Bangladesh residents were aware of the high risk of VAW after extreme weather events. In the tradition that women must remain “pure” before marriage, families with female children were more likely to marry them after the events as soon as possible to avoid the potential of VAW on them. In economic consideration, families were urged to reduce household expenditures after extreme weather by marrying young girls at a low dowry. Exploiting young girls and their families' needs to sustain a living, some wealthy men married a second or third wife. For impoverished families with male children, marriage is also a source of funds to recover from damages and losses.
The dowry system in Bangladesh not only encourages early marriage after extreme weather but also catalyzes other dowry-related VAW. When women’s families fail to provide dowry in time after marriage, which is usually the case after extreme weather conditions, the possibility of men punishing them by verbally assaulting, physically abusing, divorcing, or femicide is increasing. After an extreme weather event, families of brides who suffer from crop losses have to sell their livestock or remaining assets at a low price to ensure dowry. Microfinance agencies have practices of lending dowry money to grooms' families, but brides’ families have to bear the burden of loans, increasing brides’ vulnerability to poverty.
What has been done?
Bangladesh has made significant efforts to reduce VAW. Institutionally, 64 District Committees on Violence Against Women were created in 2010; a Cell for Prevention of Violence Against Women was established in 2010 within the Women Support Programme of the Department of Women Affairs to provide legal assistance for abused women; a Cell for the Prevention of Violence Against Women and Children at the Police Headquarters was established in 2010 to compile reports of violence cases against women and children to the Central Cell to Prevent Violence Against Women and Children (1990) in the Ministry of Women and Children Affair (MoWCA, 1978) and Ministry of Home Affairs. From the legal perspective, it amended Article 34 and Article 35 of the Constitution in 2014 to include the provisions on VAW to prohibit forced labor and clarify that ”No person shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment”, respectively. Since 2010, Bangladesh adopted the Dowry Prohibition Act, Child Marriage Restraint Act, and Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act. Most recently, Bangladesh MoWCA approved the National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women and Children and the National Action Plan On Prevention Of Child Marriage, taking effect from 2018 to 2030 .
Bangladesh has also established a mature organizational structure and response system to extreme weather conditions. For example, the Disaster Management Information Center (DMIC) was established to compile and standardize the disaster risk data collection. The legal framework is founded on the Disaster Management Act, the Standing Orders on Disasters, the National Plans for Disaster Management (NPDM), and various other plans . The detailed explanation of disaster planning is out of the scope of discussion in this article, but the main idea of mentioning disaster management here is to note that VAW has yet to be discussed as a significant part of disaster risk reduction strategy by intervention. The centralized decision-making mechanism in Bangladesh not only makes the implementation of disaster management plans in practice challenging but also causes obstacles to bringing gender-related topics on the agenda because high authorities questioned the fact that VAW becomes more prevalent during extreme weather .
The government is also working on creating employment opportunities to mitigate the negative impacts of extreme weather events, including VAW. The efforts include the Food for Work and Employment Generation Program for the Poorest (EGPP), Export Processing Zone, and the introduction of agricultural technologies such as high-yielding variety (HYV) crop production and intensification. Still, all these approaches have disproportionate effects on different populations. Some groups, such as older women, still need to be recognized in the workforce, although young and unmarried women are prioritized. The expansion of the export processing zone benefits only some marginalized populations. They might need more literacy skills to secure employment in the new business. Agriculture modernization only helps specific groups, such as wealthy farmers, as small cropland owners cannot afford the assets to implement the advanced technologies .
International organizations are collaborating with non-government organizations and Bangladesh ministries to implement several women's empowering programs to increase their adaptability to climate change. For example, UN Women launched “Reducing Vulnerability of Women Affected by Climate Change through Livelihood Options,” and ACDI/VOCA implemented the Program for Strengthening Household Access to Resources (PROSHAR) . There is still ample room for improvement in scaling up existing programs and implementing new practices to effectively combat VAW in Bangladesh.
Glossary of Terms
 Autonomy: The quality or state of being self-governing.
 Disrepute: Lack or decline of good reputation; a state of being held in low esteem.
 Dowry: The money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband in marriage.
 Femicide: Intentional killing with a gender-related motivation. It may be driven by stereotyped gender roles, discrimination towards women and girls, unequal power relations between women and men, or harmful social norms.
 Gender-based Violence (GBV): An umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will, and that is based on socially ascribed (i.e., gender) differences between males and females.
 Microfinance: A type of banking service provided to low-income individuals or groups who otherwise wouldn't have access to financial services.
 Patriarchy: Control by men of a disproportionately large share of power.
 Violence Against Women (VAW): A more accurate term to describe violence as the manifestation of gender inequality and discrimination against females, rooted in local cultural norms and amplified by poverty.
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