Bangladeshi-American teen activist fighting for climate action

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The UN Climate Change Conference, COP25, opened on Monday in the Spanish capital Madrid, with world leaders coming together to deliberate on the imminent environmental crisis facing humanity.

The conference is expected to focus on a range of issues such as the global tourism industry’s actions to implement climate-friendly initiatives, tracking the progress of the Paris Climate Agreement 2016, as well as a session on “Intergenerational Inquiry”, where global leaders will meet with youth activists leading the climate change conversation.

The issue of climate change, while a key global conversation, has made great strides with activism coming from a much younger generation, mainly high-school students, at the forefront of the conversation.

In September, during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), thousands gathered in New York for a youth climate strike led by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg’s call for urgent climate action.

At the gathering, in which more than 200,000 people marched across Manhattan, one teenager highlighted stories of a community that remains some of the most vulnerable to climate change – and yet remains under-reported: The women, children, and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Climate change activists participate in an environmental demonstration as part of a global youth-led day of action, Friday Sept. 20, 2019, in New York. A wave of climate change protests swept across t
Climate change activists participate in an environmental demonstration as part of a global youth-led day of action in September

Sixteen-year-old Rebeca Sabnam stood in front of a crowd of hundreds of people, recalling the times her uncle had carried her to school on his back during floods in her hometown Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

“I am from Bangladesh, a country that exemplifies how interconnected the climate emergency is to racial justice and poverty,” she said, linking the much-discussed discourse on how people of colour are often disproportionately affected by climate change.

Sabnam, a Bangladeshi-American high school student, later told Al Jazeera that she thought when she would bring up Bangladesh’s name in the crowd, there would be mere crickets. Instead, there were roars. She was overwhelmed by the response.

Sabnam, who is in grade 11, lives in New York with her family, who migrated to the country when she was six years old.

“The climate crisis is not just an environmental issue, it’s an urgent human rights issue,” said Sabnam to the cheers of the crowd in New York.

“Bangladeshi women are extremely vulnerable to post displacement trafficking, magnified by the climate crisis,” she said. “We want Bengali women as well as the Rohingya people living in Bangladeshi refugee camps to know that youth around the world are striking for their lives and security.”

For COP25, Sabnam says she hopes there is more “urgency” than was expressed at COP24 last year.

“We want COP25 to not simply take note of [the] alarming data [on the rise in temperature], but to advocate for the end of the funding, expansion, and use of fossil fuel,” she told Al Jazeera ahead of the two-week summit.

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, center, speaks to guests next to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, centre, speaks to guests next to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, left, during the Youth Climate Summit at the United Nations headquarters in September

“I hope they address not only a transition to renewable resources but a just transition for frontline communities.”

Bangladesh remains one of the most vulnerable to the climate crisis with its flat topography making it more prone to significant floods. In 2016, it was ranked sixth on the Climate Risk Index as one of the 10 most-affected countries.

Meanwhile, experts worry that a large surge of climate migrants are forming as a result of increasing climate risk, especially in the coastal areas of the South Asian nation of 160 million people.

This migration, causing overpopulation in inner cities, is further leading to the human trafficking of children and young women, experts say. A July UN report shows that climate change is one of the reasons that make women flee home, and therefore making them more vulnerable to human trafficking.

“The issue of climate change is a silent disaster, a disaster that’s happening on a daily basis but we do not see it immediately,” says Sakil Faizullah, communication manager of UNICEF Bangladesh.

“It can’t be immediately seen or measured but the impact is felt throughout the country. For instance, if anyone travels in rural areas, the villages are not necessarily even educated, but they have an understanding that the weather pattern has changed.”

According to an April UNICEF report, 19 million Bangladeshi children are at risk owing to climate change disasters such as floods and cyclones.

Faizullah told Al Jazeera that this means the education of these migrating children is hampered, along with other facilities.

“We really can’t say that they can immediately go back to their normal education system,” he said.

“Whenever there’s flood[ing] it actually destroys health facilities, especially the tube well, it submerges them; schools are closed down during floods. If a child is deprived of health, education, and basic drinking water – what else can you offer? These are the basic needs.”

Women and the Rohingya community remain particularly vulnerable to similar risks, experts say.

Flood-affected people wade through flooded water in Jamalpur, Bangladesh, July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

According to an April UNICEF report, 19 million Bangladeshi children are at risk owing to climate change disasters such as floods and cyclones.

Beyond women being impacted merely due to cultural norms, the climate-induced migration in Bangladesh disproportionately affects women, says Moyen Uddin Ahmed, a programme manager at the Emergency Response and Preparedness at Humanitarian Program of BRAC.

Owing to climate migration, the male figure of a household is often moving or internally displaced, which places the household management burden solely on the women, he said.

Since water sources are becoming increasingly scarce, women have to travel futher for collection. This, Ahmed says, carries an extra burden on their menstrual and reproductive health. “Women are usually collecting this water from the source. The source is becoming scarce so they’re having to spend more time on this,” he said. “Menstrual and/or pregnant women carrying the water during this time is more trying.”

When it comes to the Rohingya crisis, the community is already suffering given the location of their refugee camps.

After the initial influx of Rohingya refugees, Ahmed from BRAC said trees were cut en masse to accommodate more people, leading to deforestation.

“The Bangladeshi mountains are not rocky, they’re small mountains,” he said. “During monsoon when there’s heavy rain, the landslide possibility increases.”

The indigenous communities, many that also live in coastal areas, remain at a similar risk.

An Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Leadership and Development report documented how the Munda women – a group of indigenous women – are coping with climate challenges.

“As indigenous peoples, they have had less political voice and as women have to contend with patriarchal social norms,” the report said, which Sabnam highlighted in her September speech in New York – the need for an understanding of how the effects of climate change intersect with some of the most vulnerable communities around the world.


This intersectionality remains at the heart of the solutions and needs to be brought into focus when thinking of ways to address climate risks in these countries.

“When designing climate change interventions, a proper gendered lens is often not applied and hence women’s differentiated vulnerabilities are not always addressed,” said Sohara Mehroze Shachi, a development professional focusing on climate change in Bangladesh.

Farah Kabir, country director of Action Aid, said the “lack of a holistic approach” remains a crucial challenge in addressing this intersectional layer of climate change.

As experts on the ground in Bangladesh have pointed out, at the core of climate resilience is the understanding of how it affects various communities differently – some of whom are not often put on the front line of the discussion.

For Sabnam, who is yet to finish school, this remains the focus of the journey ahead – how to figure out a way in which to use the current momentum to put Bangladeshi women, children, and Rohingya refugees at the forefront of the global climate change debate.

She said she is now trying to make sure Bangladesh is not “forgotten along the way after the Climate Strike, and to make sure we keep consistently pushing for our demands and making sure it’s not lost along the way.”

Al Jazeera

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