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Helping children reduce the risks of disasters in Bangladesh

I’m working on a pilot project for Save the Children in Bangladesh, which involves young people in reducing the effects of disasters. During the field work we found that there were a number of key issues specific to Bangladesh that we could really use to help people.

One of the most important findings was that women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of disasters and that their reactions are often misunderstood by men, putting them at risk. One event really brought this home to me. We were conducting a community focus group in a remote village in the southern coastal belt, which is highly vulnerable to Cyclones and other hazards. A group of about 20 community members had gathered, women on one side, men on the other, and I was between them with some Save colleagues.

The focus group was going well, and then one of the men said: “The thing is, women just don’t care about disasters, and they don’t care that their children aren’t protected”

Knowledge is power

This seemed odd so we dug further, and it turned out that women simply hadn’t been told about the cyclone early warning system. The signals run from one to seven, and at signal four community members are expected to go to cyclone shelters. But women weren’t told about the system, so were understandably reluctant to pack up their kids and all their belongings and leave the house on the basis that the men of the village had seemingly lost their collective minds and were running around shouting “Number four! It’s a number four! Pack up your stuff it’s a number four!”

The women in the community had no idea what a number four was, or that it had any relation to cyclones. Nor did they know where they were supposed to go. It turned out this was just one of many examples of how women were were left with a lack of knowledge, and this was exacerbated by cultural restrictions on women questioning traditional male authority.

Overlooked young voices

It became clear that the most marginalised women were newly married and young mothers, because their social standing was lower and also because, as young people, their views were less likely to be considered.

The other major influence on the project was a visit to a local partner organisation, who worked with their youth group to indentify and map all of the hazards in the local area. These young people not only knew more about the dangers in the their local area than the organisation and the local government (something that I see time and time again with children’s and youth groups looking at what we call ‘disaster risk reduction’) but had also identified marginalised groups that needed extra assistance. They saw that Bihari groups (minority ethnic Pakistanis stranded on the wrong side of the border when Bangladesh became independent in the 1970s) were some of the poorest families in the area — they’d even started organising activities with them!

The group they said that they wanted to expand their activities but needed more help to do this. We saw an exciting opportunity to work with these enthusiatic young people to find potential areas for climate change adaptation work — they’re already finding innovative ways to address needs in their local community.

In a country where around 61 million people are aged under 18, engaging with youth is one of the best ways of protecting the next generation of children in Bangladesh. The knowledge and capacity of local NGOs is often too limited to develop and guide the talents of young people involved in disaster risk reduction, so one of the key focal points for the project will be to raise their capacity.

Over the next couple of months I’ll be keeping you updated with my experiences from this project.

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