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10 months after tropical storm Mahasen, the residents of Barguna in southern Bangladesh are rebuilding their lives – an operation led by the community's women.
In May 2013 when Mahasen hit, the people of Barguna and neighbouring Patuakhali lost not only their homes as they knew them, but their livelihoods too. Harvest and seeds were damaged, poultry killed, gardens ransacked and road communications destroyed. Farmers and labourers, a substantial number of the population, were left with no means of supporting their families.
Two rivers run through Barguna, Payra and Bishkhali, both flowing into the Bay of Bengal. This unusual geographical setting has made Barguna a regular target of storms, flash flooding and tidal surges. Infrequent disasters are widely viewed as a major cause of poverty in the area, with families prioritising the need to work and earn money over their children's education.
The marks of destruction caused by Mahasen are still clear in Barguna. Houses roofed by tin and walled by bamboo, wood and straw are barely intact. But mother of two sons and a daughter, and grandmother of one, Shafia, has no time yet to think of repairing her home. "I have to think of three meals for eight people every day – this is my priority. As long as we are still alive, we can repair the house some time in the future. Until then, you almost have to do a full Japanese bow to enter the house!"
A six-month recovery operation, led by Plan Bangladesh and the NAARI consortium, has supported the storm-affected communities in rebuilding their lives, and women are leading the way. More than 14,000 of the worst affected households – those who lost their livelihoods and those with expectant mothers and young babies – were prioritised for livelihood grants, a major part of the recovery project.
90% of the project's beneficiaries were women, who've shown how to maximise their grants for the benefit of their families and their entire communities. "Women with husbands and adult sons still find the responsibility of maintaining their families on their shoulders," says Zimat Ara Begum, Head of Disaster Risk Reduction, Plan Bangladesh.
"Men are often reluctant to help their wives with household chores or income-generating activities, like gardening or raising poultry – activities that they see as suitable only for women. The gendered division of labour here means that women work incredibly hard, so it seemed natural that they would be the primary beneficiaries of financial support."
Grants have been a huge boost for a number of the women of Barguna, who have used them to re-establish their small businesses.
52-year-old Momotaz runs a restaurant in Kamarpara market in Patharghata. With her grant, she has refurbished her restaurant with new furniture and re-vamped the menu. "My restaurant is now the first choice for people looking for lunch," says Momotaz. "On most week days my sales total more than Tk 1,000 ($13), leaving me a profit of Tk 300 to Tk 500 that I can use to support my family," she adds.
Biva has been in the trade of making containers and cages from bamboo and cane for many years. Although demand from the local market at Kalmegha Union has always been high, lack of capital meant she could make only a very small profit.
"I had to give away two out of every three items I made to Mahajon (traditional rural lenders) who provided raw materials," she explains. "With the livelihood grant from the project, I now buy the raw materials myself. In the last few months I've sold items worth Tk 12,000 ($150) from an investment of just Tk 4,000 ($50)," she reports.
Shafia has also benefited from a grant to support her in rearing cygnets. "I've been able to buy six swans with my livelihood grant," tells Shafia. "Now I have 17 cygnets and recently sold one for Tk 500. With Allah beside me, I know I will see better days," concludes Shafia hopefully.
Shafia, Biva and Momotaz have shown they are hard-working and dedicated. And more stories of such resilience and success abound in the remote villages of Barguna. Mahasen may have devastated their homes and livelihoods, but not their ability to fight back. Their eyes glimmer with the hope of a bright future ahead.
Shamim Ahsan Khan Manager is Field Communiications for Plan Bangladesh