Saleha Begum, 45, in Patarkhola village of Ramzan Nagar union at Shyamnagar upazila in Satkhira, stands near some of the remaining damage after the roof of her home was torn off by Cyclone Amphan in 2020. She received cash support from UN Women following the cyclone, which compounded the hardships already wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: UN Women/Fahad Kaizer

In the wake of crisis, economic response and recovery plans often forget the needs of women and girls, hindering sustained peace and development. In Bangladesh, UN Women supports the Generation Equality Compact on Women Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action (WPS-HA) and is working with local partners to put recovery back on track by increasing economic security for crisis-affected women through grants and job training.

In the aftermath of crisis, rural Bangladeshi women pursue economic security

When Cyclone Amphan swept through Bangladesh in 2020, it levelled thousands of homes and washed away fisheries and other vital livelihoods.

Mahmuda Khatun’s family keenly felt the impact. Dependent on a meagre day labourer wage provided by her spouse, her family struggled to make ends meet—a difficult situation that deteriorated rapidly with the arrival of COVID-19 and the fallout from the devastating cyclone.

Khatun resolved to start her own business to pull her family out of crisis. But a lack of banking history and little knowledge of finance stood in her way.

Determined to build a brighter future for her two daughters, she reached out to Prerona Nari Unnayan Sanggathan (Prerona Foundation), a local women’s organization supported by UN Women, which engages women in crisis response and ensures they have the necessary economic security to shore up their resiliency to crisis.

Mahmuda Khatun, 30, in Barakuput village at Atulia union of Shyamnagar upazila in Khulna, generates income for her family by raising poultry following training and a loan from the Prerona Foundation), a local women’s organization supported by UN Women. Photo: UN Women/Fahad Kaizer

“The team analyzed my potential and suggested that I start a poultry farm”, Khatun says. “I had no links with microfinance institutions, so the Prerona Foundation helped me take out a loan to start my income generating activity”.

In the wake of humanitarian crises and climate disasters, the economic needs of women like Khatun are too often absent from long-term response and recovery plans. This directly impacts the ability of affected communities to fully recover from crisis shocks, hindering recovery and sustainable development.

Today, equipped with new skills and supported financially, Khatun has built a profitable business, earning around 17,000 taka (USD 200) each month.

With the family finances secured and her children in school, Khatun is now looking to help those around her.

“I would like to provide training for nearby women”, she says. “I hope to enhance their skills, helping to make more empowered women in society”.

Empowering women often starts with finance

Support from local civil society organizations is particularly important for marginalized Bangladeshi women—individuals with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, inhabitants of rural areas, and those suffering social ostracization. And across humanitarian response, a lack of adequate and flexible funding has been an obstacle to the empowerment of women and girls.

To help elevate these women and facilitate their economic security, work-related training is crucial. This longer-term approach to poverty is central to what UN Women does in Bangladesh. Emergency funds can meet immediate needs, but for enduring economic self-sufficiency to be achieved, individuals must be given the tools and training to provide for themselves. 

In a post post-disaster scenario, reaching cash in the hands of women, at the right time, makes family’s and community’s recovery efficient and faster; that’s what we, at UN Women Bangladesh Country Office, have been trying to do for the last few years.

A key element of this is the availability of finance. Less than 60 per cent of Bangladeshi women have access to credit—a consequence of entrenched  institutional, cultural and social barriers. As a result, female entrepreneurs are often forced to seek out informal financial markets or rely on profiteering middlemen.

Barriers to employment and economic resources are deep rooted

Additionally, just over a third of Bangladesh’s labour force is female, with a tiny proportion—less than five per cent—holding a formal role. On average, women earn 21 per cent less than their male counterparts. 

The humanitarian crisis triggered by COVID-19 has only complicated matters, putting vulnerable women even further behind—as was the case for Sunita Roy.

Like a majority of Bangladeshi women, Roy married young. Pregnancy followed soon after the wedding, and her life took a sudden, traumatic turn. Abandoned by her husband before the baby’s arrival, she was left paralysed from the waist down during childbirth.

In the years that followed, she strove to support her daughter and elderly mother, taking on low-paid roles and borrowing from neighbours when necessary. In time, those neighbours would become her customers, buying clothes she made with a sewing machine supplied by the Association for Social Development & Distressed Welfare (ASDDW), a local women-led civil society organization.

A talented seamstress, Roy turned her focus to more profitable products—garlands and fabric flowers—which she sold at weddings and festivals. With a steady income, things were looking up for the 36-year-old. And then coronavirus hit.  

Sunita Roy, 40, lives in Chalna at Dacope upazila in Khulna. She lost work and income due to the COVID-19 pandemic before her family’s home was damaged by Cyclone Amphan in 2020. Photo: UN Women/Fahad Kaizer

“With the countrywide closure during COVID-19, my business came to a halt”, says Roy, who lives in a rural region of southwest Bangladesh. “My savings ran out, and I couldn’t purchase food and other necessary commodities”. 

At this low point, ASDDW again stepped in. With emergency funding supplied by UN Women, the group was able to sustain Roy during lockdown, providing a cash grant of 3,000 Bangladeshi taka (USD 34). Now, as the threat of the virus wanes, she’s investing that money in her family’s future.

“I spent part of the [grant] to buy food, and with the rest I purchased some raw materials to produce my product”, she says. “My business has become a little bit bigger, my income has increased, and it’s now well enough to support my family”.

UN Women works with dozens of civil society and local women’s organizations to address these systemic issues, improving access to financial resources, training and employment opportunities. For ASDDW, a group that’s long struggled to secure government funding, this assistance is essential.

“Being a local level civil society organization, we lack capacity to mobilize funds”, explains Lipika Bairagi, ASDDW’s CEO. “UN Women has helped with this, as well as building our communication, project execution, and development capacity”.