In the Aftermath of Crisis, Rural Bangladeshi Women Pursue Economic Security

In the wake of crisis, economic response and recovery plans often forget the needs of women and girls, hindering sustained peace and development. In Bangladesh, UN Women, which supports the Compact on Women Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action (WPS-HA,) is working with local partners to put recovery back on track by increasing economic security for crisis-affected women through grants and job training.

When Cyclone Amphan swept through Bangladesh in 2020, it levelled thousands of homes and washed away fisheries and other vital livelihoods.

Rehana Khatun’s family keenly felt the impact. Dependent on a meagre day labourer wage provided by her spouse, her family struggled to make ends meet — a difficult situation that deteriorated rapidly with the arrival of COVID-19 and the fallout from the devastating cyclone.

Khatun resolved to start her own business to pull her family out of crisis. But a lack of banking history and little knowledge of finance stood in her way.

Determined to build a brighter future for her two daughters, she reached out to Prerona Nari Unnayan Sanggathan (Prerona Foundation), a local women’s organization sponsored by UN Women, which engages women in crisis response and ensures they have the necessary economic security to shore up their resiliency to crisis.

“The team analyzed my potential and suggested that I start a poultry farm,” Khatun says. “I had no links with microfinance institutions, so the Prerona Foundation helped me take out a loan to start my income generating activity.”

In the wake of humanitarian crises and climate disasters, the economic needs of women like Khatun are too often absent from long-term response and recovery plans. This directly impacts the ability of affected communities to fully recover from crisis shocks, hindering recovery and sustainable development.

Today, equipped with new skills and supported financially, Khatun has built a profitable business, earning around 17,000 taka ($200) each month.

With the family finances secured and her children in school, Khatun is now looking to help those around her.

“I would like to provide training for nearby women,” she says. “I hope to enhance their skills, helping to make more empowered women in society.”

Jahanara Begum, 40, lives in Patarkhola village of Ramzan Nagar union at Shyamnagar upazila in Satkhira with her sons, their wives and children. Cyclone Amphan devastated all the rooms of her house, especially her kitchen and the tin shed roof. Her sons work as day labourers. She received cash support from UN Women as a victim of Cyclone Amphan, which she used to buy a goat worth Tk 2, 500 and the remaining money for feed for the animal. She also hoped to receive training regarding goat cultivation, which may help open up a new source of income for her family.

Empowering women often starts with finance

Support from local civil society organizations is particularly important for marginalized Bangladeshi women — individuals with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, inhabitants of rural areas, and those suffering social ostracization. And across humanitarian response, a lack of adequate and flexible funding has been an obstacle to the empowerment of women and girls.

To help elevate these women and facilitate their economic security, work-related training is crucial. This longer-term approach to poverty is central to what UN Women does in Bangladesh. Emergency funds can meet immediate needs, but for enduring economic self-sufficiency to be achieved, individuals must be given the tools and training to provide for themselves. 

A key element of this is the availability of finance. Less than 60 per cent of Bangladeshi women have access to credit — a consequence of entrenched  institutional, cultural, and social barriers. As a result, female entrepreneurs are often forced to seek out informal financial markets or rely on profiteering middlemen.

Jarina Begum, in her mid fifties, lives in Patarkhola village of Ramzan Nagar union at Shyamnagar upazila in Satkhira, alone at her house, while occasionally visiting her son’s house nearby. Her livelihood is based on what her sons provide her. She suffers from high blood pressure. Cyclone Amphan ravaged her house, which was provided by the government, as part of an initiative to construct houses for those who had land but no home. She received cash support from UN Women as a victim of Cyclone Amphan, which she used to buy a goat, a few ducklings and a few of her medicines.

Barriers to employment and economic resources are deep rooted

Additionally, just over a third of Bangladesh’s labour force is female, with a tiny proportion — less than five per cent — holding a formal role. On average, women earn 21 per cent less than their male counterparts. 

The humanitarian crisis triggered by COVID-19 has only complicated matters, putting vulnerable women even further behind – as was the case for Sunity Roy.

Like a majority of Bangladeshi women Roy married young. Pregnancy followed soon after the wedding, and her life took a sudden, traumatic turn. Abandoned by her husband before the baby’s arrival, she was left paralysed from the waist down during childbirth.

In the years that followed, she strived to support her daughter and elderly mother, taking on low-paid roles and borrowing from neighbours when necessary. In time, those neighbours would become her customers, buying clothes she made with a sewing machine supplied by the Association for Social Development & Distressed Welfare (ASDDW), a local women-led civil society organization.

A talented seamstress, Roy turned her focus to more profitable products —  garlands and fabric flowers — which she sold at weddings and festivals. With a steady income, things were looking up for the 36-year-old; and then coronavirus hit.  

“With the countrywide closure during COVID-19, my business came to a halt,” says Roy, who lives in a rural region of southwest Bangladesh. “My savings ran out, and I couldn’t purchase food and other necessary commodities.” 

At this low point, ASDDW again stepped in. With emergency funding supplied by UN Women, the group was able to sustain Roy during lockdown, providing a cash grant of 3,000 Bangladeshi taka ($34). Now, as the threat of the virus wanes, she’s investing that money in her family’s future.

“I spent part of the [grant] to buy food, and with the rest I purchased some raw materials to produce my product,” she says. “My business has become a little bit bigger, my income has increased, and it’s now well enough to support my family.”

UN Women works with dozens of civil society and local women’s organizations to address these systemic issues, improving access to financial resources, training, and employment opportunities. For ASDDW, a group that’s long struggled to secure government funding, this assistance is essential.

“Being a local level civil society organization, we lack capacity to mobilize funds,” explains Lipika Bairagi, ASDDW’s CEO. “UN Women has helped with this, as well as building our communication, project execution, and development capacity.”

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Mahmuda Khatun, 30, lives in Barakuput village at Atulia union of Shyamnagar upazila in Khulna. A family of five, she lives with her husband, two sons and a daughter. The Covid-19 pandemic forced shrimp prices to fall, which financially devastated her husband, who ran a shrimp farm. Cyclone Amphan devastated her home, including the kitchen and roof, which they somehow managed to repair. She received cash support from UN Women as a victim of Cyclone Amphan, which she used to buy fish fries and unleash them in a pond. She also bought duck feed, to give to her existing batch of 30 swans. She hopes to receive training on how to cultivate fish fries properly as her previous endeavours failed as most of them died due to virus attacks.