Addressing these beliefs is part of the role that volunteers today play when trying to persuade women to evacuate. During Cyclone Amphan in 2020, Aparna Mistry, a relative of Mistry’s who also lives in Chila, at first refused to evacuate, embarrassed at the thought of breastfeeding her child in public and sleeping in the same room as so many strangers.
“The shelter is a very crowded place,” she says, protectively drawing a blanket over her now three-year-old son, who lies sleeping in a hammock outside the family shop where she is talking to me. “There are so many men there. When I change my clothes I feel uncomfortable.”
Asked what changed her mind, Aparna points at Mistry, who is sitting with us. “By force!” she says, and laughs. The encounter is a common one for Mistry, who says that during cyclones she often faces resistance from women to evacuate. But things are improving, she says, with the introduction of female volunteers who help to council and support these women through the evacuation process. “Only women can stand up and help women,” says Rina Sardar, a 38-year-old female volunteer who works alongside Mistry.
In 2015, UN member states adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which emphasises the importance of integrating a gender-sensitive approach into disaster management. In line with this, the CPP began gradually onboarding more female volunteers; women now make up 50% of its volunteer force.
Female volunteers are able to access spaces that men might not, ensuring that vital messages about incoming cyclones are spread among female networks which might otherwise remain isolated, explain Ferdous. Additionally, becoming a volunteer can elevate the social standing of women, giving them a role in a society which might otherwise relegate them solely to the domestic sphere.
As a result, the ratio of male to female deaths in disasters has been falling in recent years, and during Cyclone Amphan in 2020 decreased to 1:1, according to the MoDMR.
Empowering women in the community also gives them more autonomy over their own evacuation, and enables them to help with community-managed shelters, decreasing the risk of gender-based violence during evacuations, says Ferdous.
These shelters are themselves another huge part of Bangladesh’s success in reducing the risks to people of extreme weather. Through them Bangladesh has excelled at offering people clear and accessible means to protect themselves when they receive warnings.
In 1970, Bangladesh had just 44 cyclone shelters. But in the wake of the Bhola disaster and with the combined efforts of the government and international aid, this had increased to almost 4,000 formal shelters by the mid-2000s. Most double up as schools and community centres.
A study published last year found that Bangladesh’s combination of increased access and community management has helped to improve evacuation behaviours.