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Staying defiant in the face of disaster

In May 2020, residents of the coastal districts of Bangladesh suffered enormous damage due to the super cyclone Amphan. The natural disaster affected 2.6 million people in 19 districts across Bangladesh, inundating their houses, killing their livestock and forcing them to flee. Like any large-scale disaster, cyclone Amphan was particularly harmful to the most vulnerable groups of the population, such as women and adolescent girls. It deprived them from their usual safety spaces, increasing their vulnerabilities to gender-based violence and hygiene-related challenges.

By July, UNFPA and its partner agencies and implementing partners launched a life-saving emergency relief programme to address the needs of over 200,000 women and adolescent girls living in the four most severely affected districts:  Satkhira, Khulna, Barguna and Patuakhali. The project, funded by the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) stood on four main pillars: relief distribution, service delivery, awareness and access to information, and capacity building.

As part of the relief programme, almost 15,000 women and girls received Dignity Kits, specifically designed to address their personal hygiene needs and to mitigate the risk of being exposed to gender-based violence. In addition, 6,200 adolescent girls received Menstrual Hygiene Management Kits that included commodities to cover their menstruation-related needs in the aftermath of the disaster.

All the disseminated kits contained vital information on menstrual hygiene management, gender-based violence, early marriage prevention and COVID-19. The kits also included the contact information of the UNFPA supported ‘Alapon’ helpline, which provided remote counseling and life advice to around 2,500 adolescents affected by the cyclone.

Adolescent girls receiving Menstrual Hygiene Management kits in Patuakhali District

In ensuring no one is left behind, particular importance was placed on reaching out to groups of people from economically underprivileged and other vulnerable backgrounds, such as persons with disabilities, pregnant mothers, and survivors of gender-based violence.

To address the heightened risk of women being subjected to gender-based violence, UNFPA and its implementing partners also provided life-saving referral pathways to more than 2,200 women and girls who had suffered from some form of abuse.

Maryam*, who had been severely beaten by her husband after the cyclone, and was unable to pay for adequate medical treatment, received cash assistance through the project. She and 1,146 other women benefited from the cash assistance that helped them get through a difficult and dark time in their lives.

Awareness-raising interventions were also conducted among the affected population. More than 40,000 women and men participated in numerous courtyard discussions, tackling sensitive issues such as gender-based violence, child marriage and mental health. In order to maximize the spread of the messages, the implementing partners of UNFPA utilized creative means of disseminating information, such as megaphones attached to vehicles, community radio stations and local cable TV channels.

Women engaging in a courtyard meeting in Satkhira District

As extensive disasters, such as cyclone Amphan, usually overload the resources of health institutions, providing additional reinforcement is critical for saving lives. Through the project, UNFPA, in partnership with the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS),  trained 20 midwives who were deployed to understaffed and hard-to-reach union health facilities to provide lifesaving sexual and reproductive health and emergency obstetric care services, as well as support to survivors of gender-based violence. During the programme implementation, the midwives provided vital support to more than 7,700 pregnant mothers.

The project also aimed to tackle the high rate of sexual violence in the affected communities by training ten doctors and ten nurses from four district hospitals on clinical management of rape. In addition, the hospitals were provided with post-rape kits meant to be used to mitigate the immediate harm caused by sexual violence.

“Amidst the devastation caused by the cyclone, the Amphan response project succeeded in providing immediate and crucial support and information to women and adolescent girls living in the affected communities. These efforts, however, must be both continued and scaled-up,” states Dr. Eiko Narita, Deputy Representative of UNFPA Bangladesh. 

Given the success of the project, UNFPA, together with sister UN agencies, is exploring how the project can serve to pave a more concrete path towards the humanitarian-development nexus efforts in a disaster-prone country like Bangladesh. It aims to not only provide more timely, effective relief to victims of natural disasters across the country but also to reduce the impacts from disasters by being more prepared and by building resilience.

Overview of the accomplishments of the project