CPP volunteers take part in a showdown in Cox's Bazar
CPP volunteers take part in a showdown in Cox's BazarCollected

The sky is overcast with black clouds and the sea is swelling. The met office has forecast a strong cyclone. People like Hasina Akter cannot stay home at such moments. With a megaphone in hand, she starts alerting people on the upcoming catastrophe.

Hasina is a volunteer of the government cyclone preparedness programme (CPP). Like her, the volunteers of the programme alert and rescue people during landslides, floods or any natural disaster. They also rescue people during man-made disasters and offer primary treatment as well as assist them to find shelter and receive relief.

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In 1993, CPP started recruiting women volunteers, said Md. Ruhul Amin, deputy director of Chattogram region of CPP. Their involvement sped up the disaster management, he added.

The CPP volunteers work at the field level for disaster management. There are 3,701 units in 41 coastal upazilas. Each unit consists of 10 men and 5 women. Currently there are 55,510 volunteers among whom around 50 per cent are women.

CPP started in 1973 with just male volunteers, but following the 1991 cyclone it began recruiting female volunteers too. Some 139,000 people died in the 29 April cyclone. Around 42,000 bodies were found in the coastal areas of Patia, Anwara and Banshkhali alone. Among the dead, many were women and children.

In 1993, CPP started recruiting women volunteers, said Md. Ruhul Amin, deputy director of Chattogram region of CPP. Their involvement sped up the disaster management, he added.

“People would criticise me as I had to work with the men while rescuing people during disasters.”

Hasina joined in the same year as the memory of the cyclone still haunts her. Earlier, she had participated in relief distribution for a non-government organisation (NGO) which had led to her joining CPP.

Hasina is a primary school teacher and working as a volunteer for 27 years. She is from Char Hazari village of Karnaphuli, Chattogram. She received an award from the prime minister for her contribution.

Due to the women's contribution in disaster management, CPP has decided to recruit 10 women members in each unit, equal to the men in number, said Ahmadul Haque, director (administration) of CPP head office. He said initiatives are being taken to provide training to upskill the women volunteers and to involve them in leadership.

It was not so smooth for women at the beginning, said Hasina. “People would criticise me as I had to work with the men while rescuing people during disaster,” said the mother of two. “I’ve undergone so much humiliation, but those days are past.”

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“The female volunteers’ contribution is immense in disaster management. Women and children are the prime victims of any disaster while the women’s participation in the management has decreased risks,” said Gowher Nayeem Wahra, disaster managerment expert.

Last year, Kulsuma Begum, another woman volunteer, called other volunteers over the phone after she found a house in her neigbourhood in Fakiramura, Teknaf was hit by landslide in the night. Three women and a child were rescued after she informed the fire services. Two people died in the landfall. Kulsuma offered the affected people primary treatment.

Amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, Kulsuma is running a campaign to raise awareness among the people.

Kulsuma is a a worker in Teknaf for an international organisation. “When I wanted to become a volunteer, my family opposed me. They said what was the benefit of taking such risks? I said we have to keep well with others. How can I remain okay if my neighbours are in distress?”

Sushmita Mandal, from Mithakhali, Mongla of Bagerhat, is the youngest member of CPP. The only daughter of the family residing in Dottermet, a village 3 km from Mongla, Sushmita recently graduated. “We have to work whether it’s night or day. Though people criticise us, I thank them. They have increased my enthusiasm in the work,” said Sushmita. In 2019, she and her teammates cleared fallen branches along 14 km of a road after cyclone Bulbul. She helped people to return to their homes and participated in relief distribution too. She took part in the awareness campaign as well as in rescuing during cyclone Amphan. She, too, received an award from the prime minister for her voluntary work in 2019.

“The female volunteers’ contribution is immense in disaster management. Women and children are the prime victims of any disaster while the women’s participation in the management has decreased risks,” said Gowher Nayeem Wahra, disaster managerment expert.

Former UN general-secretary Ban Ki-moon and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi lauded Bangladesh’s disaster management. Emamur Rahman, state minister for disaster management and relief, attributed much credit to the CPP and said, “The women’s role is extraordinary. They are praised everywhere for their dedication.”

*This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Nusrat Nowrin.