Shukoda, from Subarnachar, in Bangladesh’s southern Noakhali district, was in her twenties when the cyclone of 1970 ravaged the coastline of Bangladesh.
“When the cyclone hit our community, everything was destroyed. We had no safe drinking water and food did not reach us for three days,” Shukoda pours a glass of fresh coconut water and explains how it once saved the life of her whole community. “We managed to find a knife that was too heavy to be swept away with the cyclone, and cut open the coconuts that had fallen to the ground in the storm. This is how we survived.”
The cyclone that hit Bangladesh in 1970 killed 500,000 people. In 2007, Cyclone Sidr killed 3,000: a difference in death toll that is attributed largely to effective measures to prepare for disasters, such as the Bangladesh Red Crescent and British Red Cross’ cyclone preparedness programmes.
Early warning signal
Shukoda is vice chairwoman of her local community disaster preparedness committee: a group of 15 men and women from the local community who mobilise the community once an early warning is given. The project makes a particular effort to have female representation on these committees, as around 60 per cent of cyclone victims in Bangladesh are female.
When cyclone Aila hit on 25 May 2009, Boschin shelter, one of nine in the area, sprang into action. After receiving the early warning from the Bangladesh Red Crescent headquarters in the capital, Shukoda’s committee organised a combination of megaphones, flag signals and household visits to make sure everyone was notified in plenty of time to take shelter from the storm.
Shukoda says: “As vice chairwoman, it is my role to give the warning signal to other women in the community. When we heard about Aila I went to people’s homes and told the women to pack their belongings in plastic and bury valuables in the ground. Then I told them to go to the shelter until the cyclone passed. At the time of a disaster, us women have learned to work with the men to protect our community. Now we are more equal.”
Preparing women for cyclones
Encouraging women to prepare and respond is crucial, as in the past they have tended to remain at home during cyclones because they are afraid of losing their possessions and livelihoods if they go to the shelters.
It is also their responsibility to look after the elderly and children, making them less mobile than men. A male dominated society can also mean women are marginalised when it come to receiving cyclone warning information.
This is why Shukoda’s role is so important. She says: “I decided to become a volunteer because I think it is important. If I can do something for the community then God will bless me. This project is raising awareness and helping the whole community. We are now better prepared than we were for previous cyclones – as Aila has shown.”
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