By Amy Lieberman
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
The men of Bangladesh's tiny islands, called chars, often leave home in the summer to find work on the mainland. The women stay behind, vulnerable to the monsoons and often driven to the rooftops of their inundated homes.
GAIBANDHA, Bangladesh (WOMENSENEWS)--Bits of gray land sprout shyly from the Brahmaputa-Jamuna River. The cracked mud seems to understand that when the monsoon season hits, it will become completely submerged.
It's futile to try to bolt anything--houses, schools, hospitals and even dreams--into this ephemeral ground.
Home to at least 3.5 million people, these few hundred chars, or tiny islands, are located seven hours north of the country's capital Dhaka. They constitute one of the most remote and vulnerable regions in Bangladesh, considered the nation most susceptible to climate change's impacts. People in these communities lack electricity, media and access to any commercial market.
Char-dwellers survive the best they can. They migrate from char to char up to 40 to 50 times in a given life (the average life expectancy here is late-40s), taking their collapsible, tin houses along with them.
But most people just wait for relief, for food, said Aneeqa Ahmad, a communications officer for Friendship, a nongovernmental group based in Dhaka. It works with somewhere between 1.5 million to 2 million of the northern char-dwellers.
"Women and children are the ones who get stuck on the chars," Ahmad said. "And women are the ones who actually handle that situation."
Men typically head to the mainland for work each summer, leaving the women behind to face the ferocious monsoon rains.
Those who can afford to flee the chars in bad weather charter boats and relocate to more stable chars. They bury their few belongings in the ground, in hopes of unearthing them if, and when, they eventually return.
Many can't afford the price of passage to safety.
During the monsoons the char women and their small gaggle of children often take refuge on the roofs of their inundated homes, waiting for the heavy rains to subside and for emergency relief, or at least a boat, to arrive.
The char-dwellers have engaged this lifestyle for two to three generations, ever since river erosion broke off chunks of the mainland.
Studies analyzing climate change's potential effects on the chars don't exist, since the only organizations present in the region--Friendship and the Chars Livelihood Programme--focus on poverty alleviation and relief.
Some long-term Friendship employees, like Dr. Shaiful Azam, the head doctor on the Lifebuoy Friendship Hospital boat, testified to the increasingly erratic weather patterns.
"It is getting worse and we know that it is because of the climate change. The rains come earlier, but are inconsistent, the winters are longer and isolate more and more people," Azam said.
Too poor to settle further inland, the people migrated to these unoccupied, fickle chars.
Though the chars' uncertain status has become a constant for its inhabitants, most "land people" would still struggle to fully fathom char-dwellers' increasingly tenuous existences.
"We say that land is the most steady thing in the world, but these people don't even have that kind of stable source," said Ahmed Toufiqur Rahmad, a senior program officer at Friendship. "People cannot think long term, because every year, everything is washed away, everything is destroyed. If you don't even have land, what can you do?"
Friendship has focused on promoting female empowerment, knowing that the women must properly care for themselves in order to ensure their communities' survival.
To this end, the group recently launched a weaving and dyeing center, where female teens manufacture cotton goods on wooden handlooms. They earn about 35 cents an item, each one of which takes around 1.5 hours to complete.
Though legally too young to work, the rules are broken to safeguard other rules, like the legal age of marriage. Girls here commonly marry when they are between 12 to 14 years old and they begin having children shortly thereafter. Having employment can extend their childhood years a bit longer.
The work also provides them with a portable skill to carry off to another, ideally more stable, char when the tides and winds sweep their birthplaces away.
Friendship also offers women an adult literacy and education program, meeting six days a week.
"What's most important is that these women can write their names, write an application, know numbers," said Enam Hague, a Friendship education officer. "Every day the milkman comes and makes a calculation, but it sometimes is wrong. These women are able to count that now and understand when they are being cheated. They are better able to plan for their futures and protect themselves."
Women in the class spoke of their heightened confidence, but kept their mouths covered with the edges of their saris and their eyes averted to open books on the dirt floor.
"Previously I was ignored because I could not write a letter and I could not write a slip at the market," said one pupil, identified only as Anissa, through a Bengali translator. "Now I can communicate and I feel proud. I feel strong because of that."
But no woman in the class ventured to say how her life might change or how her dreams have altered now that she can read and write.
"Even if they study it does not matter, they will still be getting married and taking care of their children," said Naisha Kader, Friendship's health program officer, at the organization's Dhaka office. "They don't have options. Their mothers haven't done anything, their sisters haven't done anything, so that concept of having a future outside the home doesn't exist."
Despite the challenges of living on chars, no governmental program exists to relocate the few million char-dwellers, whose public presence in Bangladesh appears to wash away with the seasonal rains.
Amy Lieberman is a journalist based in New York City. She writes primarily out of the United Nations Secretariat for a Brazilian newswire.
Friendship's Web site