Dignity in the shadows: Let’s talk about it

Dignity surrounding vulnerability to natural resources is often left in the shadows in gender-climate based discourse

Rani Das and Gita Roy


Note to the reader: We often forget to talk about dignity surrounding natural resources when we talk about gender rights. Adnan came to know about the term shadow racism when he was studying in Canada. Shadow racism is an indirect method of social stigmatization based on your name, religion, presumptions, etc, often not talked about to an extent where he could freely discuss it with his friends or family. Similarly, dignity surrounding vulnerability to natural resources is often left in the shadows in gender-climate based discourse. Dignity can be classed into four kinds — dignity of merit, moral stature, identity, and dignity as a human.

When Rani Das — then, a newly married 19-year old — moved to Dacope, an upazila of Khulna district on the southwest coast of Bangladesh, she didn’t comprehend just how much the scarcity of drinking water in the region would affect her. Now 26 years old, Rani has been suffering for seven years and was pregnant with her second child when we conducted the interview. She found the shortage of water troubling every aspect of her daily life.

Rani Das is a climate-induced migrant. Her father was a struggling homemaker with dire economic conditions. She got married because of financial constraints in her family, and moved from her village in neighbouring Satkhira district, looking for better livelihood opportunities.

The southwest of Bangladesh, situated near the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forests in the world, faces the brunt of the ongoing climate crisis. A combination of tidal flooding, cyclonic storms, storm surges, and saltwater intrusions has led to salinity in the groundwater and freshwater ponds. As a result, the region suffers from potable water — it is scarce, and a luxury.

“When I turned 19, I got married and moved to Bajua, Dacope, with my husband. My husband and I were looking for better living opportunities. At my home village in Satkhira, I had suffered greatly, like any other girl of my locality. My father struggled to earn a living. Most girls I knew or were my friends got married at my age at that time.”

Most girls are married off or are forced to marry by the age of 12 to 15 in our region. Many of Rani’s friends were married by the time they had turned 15. Rani was one of the lucky ones. She felt somewhat worthy compared to the others.

“The village I moved from is very salty. The salinity of the water is increasing every season. We were forced to drink arsenic-contaminated water from the tubewell, which was the only source of drinking water in our locality.”

The struggle of fetching clean water was a constant burden to her family, and it makes you wonder what the conditions of their sanitation would have been. Like most people in her village, the latrine her father had built was made crudely with some tin shed superstructure and with a slab on a pit, which hardly withstood any rough weather conditions. Built near a pond and situated far from her place, the latrine was a source of disease, especially during the rainy season. However, what troubled her the most was the time it got dark.

Let’s close our eyes for a second. Turn off your lights. Imagine being a kid. We used to run to the washroom thinking the boogeyman would get us. Although most of our readers and I grew up in the city, the idea of running to the toilet seemed terrifying to us. Can you imagine yourself in Rani’s shoes?

“My father had built our toilet when I was around 15, but I could hardly use it at night. Only sometimes, when there was an emergency, I would call my mother or father to accompany me. They were my protection. Sometimes I had to walk alone at night. It was an impossible task for me during the rainy season. My mother kept a pot beside my bed to use instead of taking me outside in the dark. It was embarrassing.”

Like most women in the coastal belt, Rani also faced gender-based discrimination related to inadequate WASH services in a climate change-prone area. Globally, in 71% of households, the responsibility for the daily task of water collection goes to women and girls. As a result of time spent on water collection, many women and girls cannot attend school, take on income-earning opportunities, carry out leisure activities, or engage in decision-making.

“The number of cyclones and storms that hit us in increasing. We are not prepared for it. When I got married and moved to Dacope, we thought it would ease our burden. But this is the same here. We do not have a safe drinking water source.”

What Rani and her family faced was a case of double jeopardy. She had moved to look for better life opportunities and tried to rebuild her life in a new place. Unfortunately, she faced the same problem in her new location, knowingly and unknowingly — a dilemma most climate-induced migrants face.

“I must bring water from a far distance, and we have to buy water. Every month we spend Tk200 on water. We use this water only for cooking and drinking. Two buckets of water for a four-member family do not last long.”

Rani was emotional and embarrassed while talking about the cost of the water. These scenarios are quite common in coastal Bangladesh. Rani drinks as little water as possible, which is difficult during pregnancy. To make the matter worse for her, the toilet her husband had built was destroyed by one of the recent cyclones. They use a crudely made toilet with minimal coverage, because they can’t afford better.

“The toilet we have now is broken, and I feel shy to use it during the daytime. Every time I use it, I need to cover the broken parts of the fence with a cloth to hide. I do not use the toilet at night at all. But due to pregnancy, I have to, and then I need to wake up my mother-in-law to go with me outdoors in the yard, or sometimes I go behind the woods.”

Access to clean water is not just important for their dignity, but equally important for women and adolescent girls facing their periods. It is part of their human dignity. Most women in rural communities still depend on rags, since pads are often unavailable during floods or disasters, and they cannot even use them generally because of the cost issue.

After cyclone Amphan in 2020, the water crisis was severe. Rani’s family was sick for many days. She often feared for her 5-year-old daughter, and worried about her then-unborn child. She doesn’t want them to suffer a similar fate.

It would be a misnomer to paint all women as sufferers. Some have fought to change the narrative about their dignity. Like Rani Das, another young lady Gita Roy came to the village named Tengrakhali from Assasuni Upazilla, Satkhira, with her husband, looking for better life opportunities. Women in her village are taught to keep their heads down, and have strong social and family bindings, which often restrict them from speaking out.

However, Gita wanted to change this reality. She was outspoken and dedicated to changing the narrative. Through her grit and motivation, she became one of the leaders who spoke out against her village’s water problem. With the help of WaterAid, Gita started managing the local Reverse Osmosis plant, and became a successful entrepreneur selling the water and becoming financially independent.

She created the Golap Mohila Dal — a women’s group that has continued to inspire women to break the stigma faced in her village. In 2022, Gita ran for the Union Parishad election (Bangladesh’s lowest local government unit) and won.

We are sure that the Gita’s journey was not smooth. She had to prove herself in the male-dominated society. Strong determination and self-confidence led her to overcome all the hurdles on her way, and succeed in acquiring a leadership role in society and restoring her dignity as a “human being,” creating an example for any woman to follow.

Over a span of 27 years, Rani has felt shy, embarrassed, humiliated, and suffered childhood trauma, which has rendered her dignity fragile. While we talk about water as a human right, we must deep dive into how we can uphold the dignity of people facing dignity issues due to lack of access to natural resources, especially resources like water. A conversation about water rights should be practiced equally when we talk about upholding women’s dignity alongside gender-based violence, forced marriages, physical violence, amongst others. This is a much needed discourse in our ongoing fight against water security and climate justice.

All women can aspire to become like Gita Roy, regardless of their circumstances. At the same time, the societal mindset should also change towards women and facilitate them to uphold their rights and dignity. Perhaps the time has come for these women to become the phoenix rising from the ashes. We need to plan how we can better assist those who can’t, especially when it comes to assessing vulnerability and dignity.

We sincerely hope all women can become who they want to be. Let’s all work together to stand beside them for upholding their dignity, and take on the rightful place they deserve.

Originally this article was published on April 11th, 2022 at Dhaka Tribune

Adnan Qader is working on climate advocacy with WaterAid Bangladesh. Hasin Jahan is the country director and a prominent gender rights activist working with WaterAid Bangladesh.