Women's Labour under Stressed Environmental Conditions in Bangladesh

By Khanom, Sufia | Women & Environments International Magazine, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Women's Labour under Stressed Environmental Conditions in Bangladesh


Khanom, Sufia, Women & Environments International Magazine


In Bangladesh, women's labour practices change as waterlogging increases the soil's salinity. Women work for longer hours, but stressed environmental conditions provide a space for women's autonomy as under such conditions traditional norms and values about women's labour become flexible.

Minor changes in climate result in major changes in people's livelihoods in Bangladesh, a country known for its environmental vulnerability and frequent climate-related disasters. Its geographic location, high population density and overwhelming dependency on natural resources for livelihoods are all contributing factors. Southwest Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to the intrusion of saline water, sea-level rise and tropical cyclones. The result alters traditional patterns of livelihood and adds environmental stresses to communities.

In rural communities in the Beel Dakatia-Bhabadaha region in southwest Bangladesh, women are engaged in reproductive activities which include caring for domestic animals, collecting fuels and water, maintaining households, and looking after children and sick family members. In addition, women also provide supporting activities for the production system. Under stressed environmental conditions, women have to take more responsibility or spend more time on reproductive work.

Waterlogging is prevalent in most parts of southwest Bangladesh and results in an increase in the salinity of soils and reduces the productivity of land. In the Beel Dakatia-Bhabadaha area in greater Khulna and Jessore, long-term stressed environmental conditions have restricted the accessibility and availability of land and water which are the most important components of livelihood activities. This disruption in livelihoods affects all sociocultural and economic aspects of communities including the conservation of biodiversity, food security, land-use patterns, occupational patterns, energy use, and nutrition status.

Four consecutive reconnaissance surveys were conducted to observe shifts in livelihood patterns as a result of waterlogging. Three categories of villages were observed in this study: first, non-stressed villages, which are communities that were not waterlogged; second, stressed villages where livelihood patterns have not yet adapted to the waterlogging; and third, stressed villages where livelihood patterns have tentatively adapted to the waterlogging and individuals are exploiting natural resources such as the land and water for their livelihood support. This field study shows that awareness about environmental conditions among women is higher in stressed villages.

Women's Contribution to Food Security

While women's work in the household does not have an immediate market value, work associated with reproduction occupies most of women's days. These activities increase as a result of stressed environmental conditions. Women's participation in income generating activities also increases, in addition to their normal reproductive roles.

Women's contribution to household food security is significant and it is inversely related to their husband's socioeconomic condition. In agrarian households, women participate in post-harvesting activities such as threshing, winnowing, storage and management of seeds. They are also involved in land preparation, seed sowing, fertilizing, weeding, tillage and planting. On average, about 68% of women surveyed work directly in the agrifield up to two hours per day, 21% work for three to four hours per day, and 11% work for five to nine hours per day.

Women work for longer hours in waterlogged villages than in non-stressed villages. There is more "return" (such as crop production, total income of the household, etc.) for activities in stressed villages and women are working harder in these villages. Therefore, adapting to stressed environmental conditions means more work from women and the crop production directly increases with women's contribution of hours of work. …

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