The fear that was inside us has vanished

By Elizabeth Stevens

As climate change intensifies the struggles in poor communities, women’s groups become a powerful force in reducing the risks.

“I used to be so nervous it was hard for me to utter a word in public,” says Anjali Devi Bohora.

This is the same Anjali who—with a women’s group she helped organize—brought wifi and even a road to Khalla Maseti, her isolated, flood-prone community in Nepal. The same woman who has become the go-to person in her village for emergencies of all kinds, who now owns a small shop and has become an elected official in local government.

Basanti Buda from Kutiya Kabar —another Nepalese village on the border that experiences devastating floods—echoes her experience at a community gathering. “We couldn’t even come out of our kitchens. Even if I just had to tell my name, my legs would shake with nervousness.” Heads nod among the women around her. They’ve been there. But it is a memory quickly, mercifully receding into history. Now, the women of Kutiya Kabar are the movers and shakers of their village—the ones who strengthened the awareness of local officials about disaster preparedness and response, and through those relationships brought electricity and a road to their community.

At a public meeting, the women are serious one moment and boisterous the next, but never at a loss for words.  “I’m not scared anymore,” says Rupar Sunar. “I can talk to anyone and laugh openly.”

Kaushila Sunar explains it simply: “The fear that was inside us has vanished.”

On the coast of Eastern Samar, the Philippines, the story is not so different. “I used to stay at home, and I hardly had any interaction with people outside,” says Rowena Obina from Dolores. “I was extremely shy.” If you met her now, “shy” isn’t a word that would pop into your mind. She is a confident public speaker who tells the story of how two women’s groups are restoring the mangrove forest that helps protect their coastal community from destructive typhoons. She and they have rallied public support for the project, and community groups, police, local officials, and others have helped them plant thousands of saplings at the site.

Helping women step into leadership

In poverty-stricken communities the world, Oxfam and local partner organizations have helped women join hands to face down sexism, gender-based violence, economic oppression, and every other manifestation of gender inequality.

Women’s self-help groups are playing a central role an Oxfam program known as ACT (Asia Community Disaster Preparedness and Transformation), which we launched with local partners in October 2020 to help vulnerable communities in Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Indonesia adapt to a changing climate through disaster preparedness, response, and risk-reduction measures—with women in the lead. (Read about ATECA, ACT’s counterpart in Central America.)

Why women? Because they are among the most vulnerable in the face of emergencies so need to be front and center in decision-making around disaster management. Because in the climate crisis, the strengths women tend to bring to leadership—cooperative approaches and deep knowledge of the needs of families and at-risk community members—are needed more than ever. And because women deserve to have their voices heard in all areas of life.

Oxfam and partner organizations SIKAT, NEEDS, CIS Timor, Jago Nari, SKS Foundation, and Wave Foundation have helped them form groups and provided them with trainings on everything from disaster preparedness to women’s rights to financial literacy to how to run for office. The women themselves have provided the hard work—and the magic. The warm embrace that enables a silent, frightened member to find her voice, and the solidarity that makes these groups a force to be reckoned with.

The women’s groups have brought about profound shifts in the roles and status of women in their families and communities. Husbands are now helping out around the house, women are becoming effective and respected activists, and the ever-present threat of gender-based violence is receding.

“There used to be domestic violence here,” says Kaushila Sunar of Kutiya Kabar. “We have made the community violence-free.”

Somewhere to turn

Many of the women’s groups in the ACT program save money together and make loans to one another from their pooled funds. Most groups have set aside some money—five percent of their total—for use in emergencies, which enables members to buy what they need during crises without falling prey to unfair lending practices. But most of the loans have to do with managing the everyday emergency known as poverty. One woman might take out a loan for household or school expenses when she runs out of money; another might need supplies to keep her microenterprise afloat. The interest rates are lower than they can get elsewhere (3-5 percent per month as opposed to 10) and there’s no significant paperwork involved. But whether or not a woman takes advantage of the service, they say, they feel better just knowing they have somewhere to turn if they run into trouble.

Having ready access to low-interest loans has had another positive effect: reducing the women’s reliance on their husbands. “I feel more empowered now,” says Ronalyn Esuyot from the community of San Isidro, the Philippines. “If I lost my partner, I feel confident that I could live independently.”

From go-bags to mangroves, building safer communities

Oxfam partners have helped revive community disaster management committees in the four countries, and are providing them with ongoing trainings and support. The committees help bridge the gap between local communities and their governments; members of the women’s groups have joined the committees and are in many cases taking the lead. Disaster preparedness and mitigation are at the top of their agendas, so early-warning systems are being put into place. For example, women in the village of Bena in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, now receive and monitor WhatsApp messages from the Department of Meteorology and Climatology to understand when the nearby river Noelmina might overtop its banks. The committees encourage residents to prepare goods and documents in waterproof containers they can grab in the event of a sudden emergency; they are also supporting an array of long-term projects aimed at climate change adaptation, including a solar installation in an off-grid community, the mangrove rehabilitation project, and agriculture initiatives, like experimenting with a flood-resistant crop and a drought-resistant irrigation system.

Oxfam, in turn, has provided our partner organizations with training and support to boost their ability to lead in emergencies. “Oxfam has supported us with financial software and training, writing funding proposals, and developing the board of directors, and with our strategies around women’s leadership, advocacy, and disaster preparedness and response,” says Bhawa Raj Regmi, director of NEEDS. “Through an emergency response fund, they helped us create a stockpile of emergency supplies. They have improved our exposure by helping us travel to different countries for workshops.” It’s all part of our effort to keep disaster management in the hands of those who have roots in the communities and will be present for the long haul. 

A taste of joy

As disastrous weather continues to ravage coastal and agricultural communities, women are coming forward to protect their communities. Many of them don’t know if they can feed their families tomorrow or the next day.  Yet, their gatherings are high spirited and full of laughter—perhaps the most powerful predictors of success and sustainability.

The women’s group is like family, says Celsa Nable from the island community of Hilabaan in Eastern Samar, the Philippines. “We just feel happy seeing one another.”