Generations of women in slums in a snap

Unraveling links among climate change, poverty and health in slums of Dhaka

It is well known to the environmentalists that Bangladesh is currently considered the 7th most vulnerable country to the adverse effects of ongoing climate change. What we do not know, however, is the adverse effects that are already in place and how much it is tangled with rural-urban migration, rehabilitation, gender, human rights, and health issues with a large share of mental health problems, seldom studied and looked into

To investigate what is the aftermath of women coming into Dhaka and settling inside the slums after facing the atrocities of natural hazards linked with climate change- I, along with my teammate Rupita, Ananya, Mimi, Jahin went through thorough interviews and focus group discussions with the displaced ladies.  We focused on women who came to Dhaka in 10-15 years from the present time, as various studies suggest that more than 80% of displaced people from the time after 2010 would be climate migrants. 

What we found out so far was more astounding than expected. Women, unlike men, came to Dhaka only when their families had reached the bottom level of poverty- when they had lost everything to the disasters. There were attempts to be settled near their origins by many of them, but futile. Dhaka city, to them, was not an option, rather the only hope of survival. None of the interviewees claimed they wish to live in Dhaka– many of them have adopted a tedious life on bare minimums to save money- so that perhaps one day they can go back to their origins and settle. But in reality, this is a dream achievable by only a few. With their average household income of 5 to 10 dollar a day, in the 72nd most expensive city to live in, saving money is nearly impossible. 

All of our respondents claimed being stricken with ‘poverty’ after surviving climatic hazards. Neither authorities of their origin nor in Dhaka were prepared to rehabilitate them. The result- migration into shabby slums in Dhaka as these were the only places accessible and ‘relatively’ affordable to them, and the city had better employment opportunities for such ‘ill-fated’ women. 

Women in Tejgaon Railway Slum selling vegetables for a living

Misery, however, never left the ladies.

According to the women, they feel despair from the cutoff of rural lifestyle. The environment and culture is very different from what they are used to live in. They feel out pf space. Poverty in the slums is worse than imagination. Not only the people, especially women, earn less, but the cost of basic facilities are much higher, yet inadequate. Moreover, Gender-Based Violence (GBV) like catcalling and sexual abuse is very common for the women in slums. The structures and design of slums only make things worse for them. The houses in the slum are very small, roughly 100 sq ft. Each family reside within one of such houses, with only one room in it. The houses have no space in between them, and the paths connecting the slums can be as narrow as 3 ft. This makes the residence in the houses and even walking in the paths uncomfortable. They feel a lack of privacy in their new life. Fire hazards are frequent, and fear of eviction is a constant threat in their lives.  Lack of water supply points and toilets leave them prone to health hazards and security threats alike. On one hand, lack of toilets puts women in a vulnerable position to GBV when using the toilet or collecting water, especially during night time. On the other hand, it forces them to reduce drinking water, hold onto urine and follow unsanitary practices during menstruation- causing dehydration, urinary infection, constipation, uterine prolapse, and reproductive problems. Rising temperature increases the demand for drinking water. With groundwater depletion, the supply of water becomes scarce and women are the worst sufferers of the condition. They are the ones expected to reduce consumption first. Also, erratic rainfall causes flooding in the slums, that impede them from collecting water or going to toilets.

Ashes from fire outbreak still remain after a month
A woman inside a ‘toilet’ in Tejgaon Railway Slum
Row of houses in Korail Slum

 

 

 

Abandoned house after ‘development project’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though our interviews didn’t focus on the mental health of the woman, prevailing notion of chronic stress and fear they deal with every day was evident within the fear of violence, eviction and lack of belonging and identity. In all of our interviews, participants expressed their frustrations, insecurities and struggles of everyday life. 

In short, the cost of survival is beyond our imagination. Further investigation can help us understand their extent of adaptation within urban spaces, especially in slums. Mental health associated with coping with a new urban environment losing their home,  security threats, condition of facilities and changed identity and their needs for rehabilitation needs to be thoroughly understood to ensure a better life for them. 

Bangladesh has made remarkable improvements in tackling natural hazards by reducing casualties and economic loss. But to be truly a resilient nation, we have to prepare ourselves to restore the lives of climate survivors, not forgetting the ladies.

Urban Planner || Researcher || Development and Wellbeing Practitioner. Country Project Manager – Bangladesh at NeuroLandscape