Environmental injustice & (dis)empowerment of out-migrating Bangladeshi women to India

MRITTIKA BHATTACHARYA  |  4 JUNE 2022  |  OXFORD MIGRATION CONFERENCE 2022

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Picture by the International Monetary Fund on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The direct relation between anthropogenic environmental change and human migration has not been widely accepted until recently. Even though it is hard to pin down the exact number of individuals on the move due to environmental-related causes, several studies investigating the relationship between climate change and migration have identified that environment-induced migrations are likely to increase in the future as a result of the interplay between socioeconomic and environmental drivers. But the lack of a unified theoretical approach in the migration discourses and the absence of a widely accepted definition to refer to these migrating individuals leads to an international policy void regarding their legal protection. Amongst those affected and forced to move, environmental injustice is particularly meted out to rural poverty-stricken women of the Global South, because their livelihoods are intimately interlinked to environmental resources.

 

In terms of scale, these migrations can be both internal and international, temporary and permanent, and caused by fast-onset and slow-onset events, and they are largely influenced by several other variables in the origin and destination, including socioeconomic, political, and demographic factors. The heterogeneous contributors to these migrations include financial and human capital, gender, age, health, availability of places to move to, and the capacity to track what happens to property and assets left behind. Among the economic drivers, income differentials and income variability play a major role as pull and push factors. In this context, developing countries, since they are mostly dependent on agricultural resources, show evidence of environment-related migrations from rural areas to cities

 

Moreover, environment-induced migration is a gendered and socially embedded process. The adaptive capacity of individuals in the face of environmental disruption is determined by the manner in which gendered vulnerabilities are manifested under a patriarchal system. The unequal distribution of these vulnerabilities depends on the individual’s exposure to environmental risks and access to resources at different scales and levels, which constitute the vulnerability calculus. An intersectional lens and an environmental justice framework reveal that discrimination against these migrating women takes place at various scales – the body, the household, the region, the nation and the supra-national organisations.

 

Coming to the context of Bangladesh, 63% of the population engages in three main types of livelihood activities: forests, fisheries and agriculture. Hence, any form of environmental degradation directly impacts livelihood opportunities. The country is exposed to the risks of environmental stressors primarily in two different ways. In the first instance, agricultural production is impacted by low rainfall and rising temperatures. Secondly, floods, saline water intrusion, riverbank erosion and tidal surges have large-scale effects in the sphere of infrastructure, natural resources, livelihood activities, and the economy of the country. From the perspective of environmental disasters, the slow onset of increased soil salinity in coastal areas because of sea-level rise leads to land degradation and a decline in agricultural production, causing long-term difficulties and voluntary migration. On the other hand, rapid-onset environmental disasters such as cyclones, tidal water intrusion and river erosion affect deltaic areas and provoke widespread displacement.

 

Being exposed to a wide range of environmental disasters every year, Bangladesh exhibits a ‘gendered terrain of disasters’. Amongst 169 countries under UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index, it ranks very low at 133. This low rank can be attributed to an overt form of patriarchy dominating every aspect of Bangladeshi life like that of the ‘purdah’ (a face covering to protect women from the view of other men apart from their husbands and sons), mobility restrictions, lower economic and social status, lack of autonomy in decision-making, and an unequal distribution of resources within the family.

 

About 12.65% of the Bangladeshi population live in disaster-prone areas, and many are faced with the choice of either starving or migrating to nearby countries, with its associated risks. These Bangladeshi women migrate to metropolitan cities in India because of the porous borders, historical ties, and cultural commonalities. In the post-migration context, migration can entail benefits and be extremely empowering for them. But such empowerment occurs only if the migration is legal, long-term and urban, and if the women are engaged in skilled labour. When their families become largely dependent on the money they send, the decision-making power and the authority of these women increase. But, for most of them, the decision to migrate is not made individually and the women themselves do not have much say. While passing through transit countries, many women are trafficked and forced into sex work. This is more commonly seen when they are migrating illegally or are tricked into believing that they will be provided with jobs and high income by various agencies and pimps. 

 

Once they migrate, the women become solely dependent on the recruitment agencies and information chains mainly due to the inaccessibility of resources and legal systems. A majority of them are employed in informal sectors, as domestic or care workers, and face different forms of discrimination. Employers take advantage of their mobility restrictions and fear of deportation to further exploit them. In addition to that, they face other kinds of injustices as a result of their religion, caste, clothing patterns, and various other societal cleavages.

 

Therefore, the success of these migrations as a form of adaptation becomes highly questionable, particularly because the governments of sending and receiving countries do not address these as environment-induced mobilities to shun responsibilities. Without any national or international protection framework, the basic human rights of these women become at stake. Their agency in the decision-making process and ambiguities about whether these are voluntary migrations become another issue of concern. Recently, many scholars and international bodies have been advocating for a more integrated multilateral approach bringing together governmental and non-governmental actors for building resilience amongst the most affected communities and aiding them with gender-transformative adaptation strategies. However, even though such engagements do accelerate environmental responses and provide immediate support at the grassroots level, they do not reduce the significance of governmental initiative and legal frameworks in the long run.

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Mrittika Bhattacharya

I am a doctoral researcher at the University of Bristol. During my MA in Women's Studies at the University of York, I was awarded a distinction for my dissertation on environmental injustice causing the out-migration of Bangladeshi women to India. I am taking this research forward for my PhD in Sociology from an interdisciplinary perspective, having pursued an MA in Political Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Previously, I taught a wide range of courses to undergraduate and postgraduate students at MRIIRS, India. I also worked with international think tanks and NGOs on issues concerning gender-based violence, climate adaptation, irregular migration, and trafficking in the Global South.

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