09 Mar 2020 Story Gender

Can renewable energy give climate-displaced women in Bangladesh a new beginning?

Photo by UNEP/ Prashanthi S

It is nightfall in the village of Char Baghutia in Manikganj district in central Bangladesh. Twenty-seven-year-old Miriam is hunched over a rickety old sewing machine, under a single incandescent lamp, with one hand over the cloth and the other rocking her one-year-old baby to sleep. Her husband, a day labourer, is miles away in Dhaka. Propped against the back wall of this one-room dwelling that the family rents, are a number of appliances—an old TV, a small refrigerator, all gathering dust. Currently, there is neither steady nor affordable electricity to run these appliances, but she keeps them anyway, hoping they come to use some day. 

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Photo by UNEP/ Prashanthi S

Tough choices, resilient lives

In the last decade, Miriam has moved many homes. Being part of a traditional fishing community, the family lived for many generations on the banks of the river Padma. But as the risk of climate change grew, with constant flooding, significant sections of the banks started eroding and with it, the land, lives and livelihoods that Miriam’s family built. Confronted with no choice, eight years ago, with just the bare necessities, they left their home and migrated inland. 

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that nearly 1.2 million people are expected to be displaced every year in Bangladesh due to sudden on-set climate hazards. Of this, nearly 86 per cent are displaced due to flooding. These numbers are only set to increase. Women and girls, with already limited income in these vulnerable communities, have their work cut out for them.

For Miriam and a handful of other women, this drove them towards textile factories, often working long hours for little pay and leaving their children behind. As they soon found out, with mounting family pressures to return home, this was not sustainable.

Today, while these women are armed with the skills to tailor and make clothes, sheets and other handicrafts, they do not have the infrastructure or the capital to set up small businesses in the vicinity, that can run all year round. 

Tailoring renewable energy for local economies

Renewable energy offers the potential to be this missing piece of infrastructure. Though the Government of Bangladesh has implemented extensive solar electrification and energy programmes, in remote places like Manikganj, this infrastructure is not fully utilized to support marginalized communities who need it. Energy from solar minigrids here mainly goes towards electricity in residential and public buildings and powering commercial lighting and services in market spaces which are traditionally out of bounds for women.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) EmPower project with UN Women seeks to balance the scales in this regard. By putting women at the heart of renewable energy value chains, the project aims to build climate-resilient livelihoods for vulnerable communities. 

According to a recent study undertaken by UNEP and the Infrastructure Development Company Ltd in Bangladesh, looking beyond agriculture, there are a number of opportunities to use renewable energy to fortify women’s livelihoods in fish and poultry farming, fish drying, mobile medical health centres, electric vehicle charging, tailoring and handicrafts, milling, livestock rearing, etc.

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Photo by UNEP/ Prashanthi S

The study that surveyed 32 villages in six remote districts, identified 11 livelihoods running on clean energy, benefiting nearly 300 women directly. In the case of Miriam in Manikganj, the study found that one such option is investing in a clean, reliable and affordable source of energy to run motors and electrical sewing machines. This can give displaced women a second chance at running micro-garment units, from the comfort of their homes. In patriarchal societies of rural Bangladesh, the opportunity for women to earn additional income can go a long way in confronting traditional gender norms. For displaced communities, livelihoods built around solar energy like these can augment incomes coming from traditional sources.

Parimita Mohanty, Programme Management Officer, Renewable Energy, notes this could be a long-term solution for communities coping with climate-induced displacement and migration. “Grids and renewable energy infrastructure in many parts of Bangladesh are readily available, but these services need to be affordable and effective for women’s livelihoods. Further, digital technologies, online marketing and financial services can help expand businesses by bringing markets straight to women’s doorsteps. Not only is the energy service delivery more viable this way, but local economies grow stronger. In the long run, it will help families like Miriam’s bounce back from climate shocks and give them less reasons to migrate because of scarce resources.”

Providing women in vulnerable communities with diverse means of income is critical to building resilience and tackling climate change. Yet for this to happen, renewable energy service providers need to get creative about how to use surplus energy where it is needed the most and engage women, with their skills, knowledge and networks, to be part of the solution.  

As for Miriam, she is hopeful. “Today, I’m only making a dress for my daughter; if there’s the opportunity, tomorrow, there will be more and maybe I will teach the other girls here to sew as well!

 

The United Nations Environment Programme, through the “EmPower: Women for Climate-Resilient Societies” project, aims to amplify the voices of women and marginalized groups in climate action and help them access clean energy to build resilient lives and livelihoods. EmPower is run jointly with UN Women, with the support of the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Viet Nam.