Sakina's Drowning Dreams: Love in the Time of Climate Change

Nalini Singh, Poojah Badarinath, Hwei Mian

Image Credit: Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit - Armita Das (2014) Tara Books.

                          Image Credit: Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit - Amrita Das (2014) Tara Books.

Sakina looked over to the horizon, as she sat under the mango tree in her family’s yard and watched the sky with dread. She had always hated that tree. Every year during mango season, it was her responsibility to clean the ground underneath it. She always felt like the nauseating stink of the over-ripe mangos on the ground would seep into all her pores. She felt like even her sweat smelled of over-ripe mangoes.

Today, Sakina thinks about those days with nostalgia; she would give all her possessions to experience that nauseating smell, as the tree had not produced that many mangoes this season, and her family had not sold many to make extra money. The dark clouds were making her feel so sad, not even letting her hate the mango tree. The tears of frustration at seeing those clouds needed to be stopped. She needed to think about the next steps. She needed to help her mother.


Sakina could hear her mother rushing about inside, running from one end to the other of their small house, putting the firewood for the stove on higher places, checking on the food supplies and keeping an eye on her younger brothers and sisters who were not allowed to venture too far from the family compound. Thankfully, none of them had wandered off and Sakina did not have to go looking for them. Her father, who had not recovered fully from the bout of dengue fever due to an influx of mosquitoes after the rainy season, was near the river to check on their boat—a rickety hodge podge of sheet metal and timber. Like last year when the rains came, they will have to make their journey to the mainland. Their islet or Chor[2] is one of the many in the rivers in Bangladesh that gets submerged when it rains heavily, erasing their home and their possessions. Sakina had once asked her father and mother if the river carries fragments of their lives with it. She was sternly reprimanded by her parents that they were not rich enough to ponder over these useless things. Since that day she had not asked her family questions like that. She only talks about these things with her friend, Fatima, when they get time.

Sakina heard her mum saying that the rains were early this year and that the weather patterns have changed. She recalled her father talking about less fish stocks—something to do with warmer waters in recent times means the fish cannot breed like they did when she was younger. Back then, she found this talk rather boring and useless. It felt like her parents always talked about “the way things were when they were young”, to tell her off. Although, she did remember a class she took when a school was set up in a nearby Chor, where the teacher had spoken about changes in climate and what is happening to the environment. It was in the school that she met Fatima! But that was a year ago. There was no school anymore; it had closed down due to lack of funding to pay the teacher’s salary. Since then, she had been helping her mother around the house.

Fatima was her best friend. They tried to meet every day and sometimes Sakina told her parents that she was off doing chores, such as fetching water, and she and Fatima would sit by the river bed and collect stones, flowers, and leaves. She had saved all they collected in an old cloth and hid it in a hole under the mango tree, so that when she came back after the floods, she could dig it out. The river would not take everything away.

For the past couple of months, Sakina’s mother had been talking about getting her married off. Sakina was 15 years old. Her eldest sister had also been married at age 15, two years ago. Sakina did not want to get married; marriage just meant more work and responsibilities for her. But, she also knew that if she did not get married then she was just another mouth to feed that the family could not afford. This was explained to her repeatedly. She sometimes wished she were a boy so that she could also earn and contribute, rather than having to get married at such an early age. But that was not how women behaved in her family and community. Her parents would decide who she should marry, like they had decided for her sister. She would not be able to talk to her future husband before the mariage.

Even so, Sakina wished that whoever she married would let her talk to Fatima. When she was with Fatima, she felt truly happy. Sakina remembered this one time, when she and Fatima were playing, and she was telling Fatima all the things her sister shared about her marriage, how children are conceived, and about kissing. They did not understand the way sex happens between a woman and a man (yuck!). But they tried kissing and they were both so happy, giggling and rolling about on the river bank. She had laughed to herself the whole night after that. Even now sitting under the mango tree, that thought brought a smile back to her face.

Life was never easy in the Chor. Over the years, fresh water was becoming scarcer to find. The dry weather times brought in insects that the villages had not seen before, which attacked the vegetable crops that the Chor people grew, and each year there were less crops to harvest. Sakina and other children in the Chor spent a lot of their time in the gardens catching and killing those pesky insects. Those insects were used as bait for fishing, but the men in the Chor were spending more and more time in the waters and returning with lesser catch. So she loved these times with Fatima even more, because none of it mattered then. They once ran around trying to catch those insects and just ran around each other. Fatima made everything fun, and Sakina wanted to have that after she got married. She did not see a way out of the marriage, but still had some hope left that she could spend time with her best friend.

Over the last few months, Sakina’s mother had frequently experienced dizzy bouts, and Sakina was constantly worried about her health. Yet, her mother kept on busy, taking care of the house and family. When Sakina’s father was sick, he would go to the doctor at the health facility away at another Chor, but for her mum they could not afford it. So Sakina had to help her mum in ensuring her brothers and sisters kept out of trouble. Finding enough food to feed the family was difficult, but Sakina was happy that they were not starving. She never complained about what she had. Sakina had also noticed that her monthly bleeding had become irregular but she did not tell anyone at home about it. She did discuss it with Fatima and it turned out the same thing happened to her. So both of them thought it was natural; it meant less work for them.

Those ominous dark clouds were moving closer. She knew that soon, as the flood waters rose, she and her family would have to leave the Chor to move to the mainland. She knew that she would not be calling this Chor home for too much longer. She knew that like her sister, a married mum of two kids at age 18, she would be travelling that same path as well. Sakina felt a raindrop on her face—it was time to pack up. This time the rain had come early and she knew that she would have to move to the mainland sooner than before. She knew that by the rainy season next year, she would be doing the same but as a married woman. She checked if her bundle of treasure was buried properly under the roots of the mango tree.

Fatima’s family would also be moving, and at least Fatima and she would be together in the mainland. Thankfully, she had her! They had already decided they would sneak out and explore new areas in the mainland together. If they were old enough to get married, they could do this. As Sakina left the tree, and started to walk in, her small shoulders were drooping with what seemed like the burden of the world, or maybe just the burden of the earth. Yet, she had a smile, a hopeful smile!


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Sakina may be a fictional figure, however, her life story is very common among girls and women in Asia Pacific in the context of climate change. Climate change events such as cyclones, floods, droughts, and rising sea levels are getting more frequent and severe in Asia Pacific. Evidence shows that girls and women are disproportionately affected by climate change events as compared to boys and men, and that the heavier burden is on girls and women.[3]

Bangladesh_well_floodsWhether it is during droughts or floods, it is girls and women who are mainly responsible for taking care of family members (especially younger siblings and/or elderly family members, including those who are sick) and catering to the family’s daily needs (e.g. fetching water, looking for food in the forest). Many a times due to their heavy responsibilities and having to do many chores before the sun sets, they may sacrifice their health and needs. For example, especially if there is a lack of clean drinking water at home, girls and women might drink less water to ensure there is enough to go around for the rest of the family. Another consideration will be drinking less so that they need not go to the toilet, because there is not enough water supply for washing, or because the public toilet is too far away and they might experience gender-based violence (sexual harassment or sexual assault) on their way there. In certain settings, girls and women are the last to eat in their households, due to cultural norms. Undernutrition is a common outcome, which affects girls’ and women’s menstruation and reproductive health. It is also a common practice for girls to drop out of school, or young women to quit their jobs, so that they can help support the family whether through household chores or looking after the family’s small plot of farm during such critical times.

Climate change events also aggravate the poverty conditions experienced by the poor in Asia Pacific, as they normally live in the areas most at risk to climate change events such as droughts, floods, cyclones, and rising sea levels.[4] In order to cope with poverty during such events, poor families often marry off their daughters, which results in increased in child marriages and early pregnancies. Early pregnancies are very common as girls and women are not taught comprehensive sexuality education either in schools or by the health workers in their villages, as this topic is considered taboo and not something to be discussed by “good girls and women.” The messaging girls and women often receive is that they need to obey their husbands, and if they do not do so, they then deserve to be beaten by husbands. Contraception knowledge is almost nil, and girls and women do not get to choose their marriage partners, nor decide when to have children, or how many children to have.

And yet, girls and women need to not be viewed as victims of circumstances aggravated by climate change events. Internationally, our governments have committed to the 2015 Paris Agreement[5] which stipulates that the rights of girls and women are priority when taking action to address climate change. This is timely and relevant, as it is precisely girls and women who repeatedly demonstrate leadership and resourcefulness in managing their families and communities during droughts, floods, cyclones and migration in face of rising sea levels. Girls and women may be expected to take on a higher share of the care work, but they do so with resilience, strength, and keen attention to securing their families and communities. In fact, it is girls and women who possess the capabilities, knowledge, and expertise to address climate change events in their own communities. Therefore, the girls and women most affected by climate change must be consulted and participate in all processes and decision-making on adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage as per the Paris Agreement.

Coming back to our story on Sakina, the story ended with Sakina having a hopeful smile. Would Sakina continue to have this hopeful smile in 30 years’ time about her life and her daughters’ lives, if they were a similar repetition of her story? Something needs to be done now. We need to take action today. Girls and women must not continue bear the burden of the effects of global climate change. The change starts with each one of us!

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For further reading on how climate change affects the health of women, including their sexual and reproductive health, around countries in Asia, please visit the following links:


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About the Authors

Nalini Singh joined ARROW in 2009 and since then she has managed over-a-decade long Women's Health and Rights Advocacy Partnership (WHRAP) programme which is being implemented in four countries in South Asia and seven countries in the Mekong region and South East Asia. She is also managing two new projects on Building New Constituencies for Women’s SRHR: (i) Climate Change and (ii) Interfaith Advocacy.

Pooja Badarinath currently works as Senior Programme Officer for ARROW's Women’s Health and Rights Advocacy Partnership (WHRAP). She has been working and writing on issues of gender and sexuality in India for more than a decade. Her professional experience has focused primarily on analysis of law and policies related to gender and sexuality  - its impact and implementation leading to recommendations to change/reform  law and policy and State accountability and intersections of gender and sexuality in conflict

Hwei Mian is working with ARROW on climate change and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women. Her areas of expertise include SRHR, young people’s SRHR, comprehensive sexuality education, maternal health, HIV and AIDS, public health, research, training/talk and project management. She has written articles on women’s SRH and nutrition, as well as publication on interlinkages of population and development.



[*] The title is inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in Time of Cholera

[2] Chor, or alluvion, is an area in the midst of a river that is formed by the accumulation of alluvium through river flow.

[3] Smyth, I. and Sweetman, C. (2015) 'Introduction: Gender and Resilience'. Gender and Development, Vol.23, No.3, 405-414.

[4] Hallegatte S., Bangalore M., Bonzanigo L., Fay M., Kane T., Narloch U., Rozenberg J., Treguer D., and Vogt-Schilb A. (2016). Shock Waves: Managing the Impact of Climate Change on Poverty. Climate Change and Development Series. Washington, DC: World Bank.