Laily Begum is a grassroots woman leader from Bangladesh. Married and a mother of three, she has been leading her community to build disaster resilience against the frequent tidal surges, cyclones and floods that they experience.
All of the women in my community have a story to share. We have seen impacts of natural disasters to which we are so vulnerable. We have seen harvests, livestock, and houses destroyed, and even people are swept away. I used to see this as an act of God, not really aware about the work we could do to reduce our vulnerability.
I got married at the age of fifteen when I was a student in the ninth grade. Since the day I was married, my task was to take care of my husband, our three children, and our extended family. It was a life of getting up early to start chores, long before the rest of the family was awake. Like most of the women I know, I was responsible for almost all housekeeping activities – such as cleaning, cooking, collecting water and firewood, and looking after children. I never really realised how much unpaid care work I was doing in comparison to my husband.
When I started to participate in community women’s groups supported by ActionAid, I realised the inequality in my household, and women’s disadvantaged position in Bangladesh. The idea of ‘time poverty’ was eye opening to me. Because women are so busy with unpaid care work, work that often goes unnoticed, we have less time to relax, socialise, earn money, become economically independent, or work with the community. In particular, having to do so much unpaid care work is one of the main reasons that women find it hard to lead or participate in activities which will make themselves and their community more resilient. Working on disaster risk reduction (DRR) takes time, self-confidence, and sometimes economic inputs or education which women might not have access to.
This week I’m in Cancun, Mexico, at the 2017 Global Platform on DRR, where more than 5000 government and non-governmental stakeholders are discussing the implementation of the 2015-2030 Sendai Framework for DRR. I have travelled to Mexico to champion women’s participation and leadership in building resilient communities. At the same time, I will be asking for recognition and support for women to overcome barriers to step up as leaders in DRR, especially when it comes to our unpaid care burden. Alongside another grassroots leader from Vanuatu, I will be speaking at side events, working sessions, and ignite stages to share my personal perspectives and experience.
Through working with ActionAid, my life has changed. I was inspired to contribute to my community. First I worked at an informal school for children, and then became more involved with volunteering in my community. My family began to see that there were benefits from my work in the community so they allowed me to prioritise this instead of my unpaid care work. I am now respected by other women as well as the men in my community. I coordinate twelve women’s groups in my region and have worked for many positive changes in my community, from advocating for the construction of twelve ponds and eight kilometres of canals to better irrigate our land, to preventing violence against women and stopping many child marriages. As a community we have become stronger and more resilient by empowering women to lead on DRR.
Farah Kabir is the Country Director of ActionAid Bangladesh. Through collaborating with women leaders like Laily, ActionAid Bangladesh has made real changes to community attitudes around unpaid care work, resulting in improvements for disaster resilience both for individuals and communities. Farah is also attending the Global Platform for DRR this week.
Working alongside women like Laily gives me the conviction that communities can become stronger and more resilient. Empowering women to participate in and lead this process is vital to its success. But speaking to Laily also makes it clear that there remain many barriers which can still prevent women from taking up this leadership. The 2017 Global Platform on DRR marks an important moment to ensure that women are empowered to lead and participate in building their own and their community’s resilience.
ActionAid have launched a paper, Beyond Caring: Enabling women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction by breaking down the barrier of unpaid care work, that makes seven recommendations to ensure that unpaid care work is recognised in the context of disasters and DRR. It also recommends service provisions that help to reduce the burden of unpaid care work, and that support redistribution of unpaid care work within the household and community. It aims for developing the capacity of grassroots women to participate in and lead DRR.
ActionAid is also releasing five case studies of women around the world who have turned around their lives, like Laily, and began leading DRR activities, resulting in positive impacts for their community.
We must make sure that promoting women’s leadership in DRR is not just rhetoric. It is imperative to invest in women as first responders in order to achieve the SDGs and the Sendai Framework agenda by 2030. If we fail to do so, the goal of leaving no one behind will never be accomplished. Addressing the unpaid care burden is one of the most important ways to start.