Chars: A symphony of narratives and obstacles

The concept of the char unfolds gently, like a whispered secret transferred across the playful waves of Bangladesh's riverside tapestry, where each river weaves its own tale. A "char" is a delicate creation, an alliance between rivers and land, a mystical island created by sediment and sand and held delicately in the river's aqueous embrace. These fragile islands float through the currents like transient dreams, a melodious story conveyed by the river's own melody.While expressed in these fancy words, it sounds fantastic and makes one fantasize about a paradise setting, a fantasy vacation spot, or a site for capturing nature. We can play with words to describe the char regions but when we talk about the reality of these lands, where the brutal reality differs greatly from the gorgeous description.

Numbers from sources like the World Bank, United Nations Development Programme, and International Organization for Migration shed light on the "char" phenomenon. Approximately 40,000 of these islands grace Bangladesh's waters. Upon them, around 5 million individuals reside, their lives interwoven with the river's rhythm. But the numbers don't rest, as the formation and erosion of chars keep them in constant flux.

The island's inhabitants on the mainland – fishermen, farmers, traders – find sustenance from the chars. This dependence stretches wider than the inhabitants themselves. It's estimated that 3-5% of Bangladesh's populace, numbering in the millions, relies directly or indirectly on chars. These chars, though fragile, bear economic significance. They provide not only sustenance but also livelihoods for millions. However, their delicate ecosystem makes them vulnerable. The relentless rivers erode their shores, and the threat of floods and cyclones looms. Yet, despite these adversities, they contribute around $3.5 billion annually, accounting for roughly 2% of Bangladesh's GDP.

These lands offer fertile ground for agriculture, housing, diverse crops like rice, vegetables, and fruits, which collectively yield an estimated $2 billion annually. They also contribute to approximately 20% of the country's fishing industry, a valuable resource adding another $1 billion to the economy. Even tourism finds its place in this delicate tapestry, drawing visitors who bring an estimated $500 million.

In the midst of this symphony of contrasts, a resolute melody emerges from the char's inhabitants, especially those residing in the northern regions of Bangladesh – Gaibandha, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari, and Rangpur. These remote districts are defined by their extensive riverbeds and enigmatic chars, challenging the very fabric of development. The people here, driven by an indomitable spirit, carve out lives amidst adversity's relentless waves.

Their stories, echoing through the fragile landscape, beckon the world to listen, share their struggles, and unite in breaking free from the chains of suffering. Among these struggles are a multitude of adversities:

Nature's fury: The vulnerability of char areas to natural onslaughts like floods, cyclones, and the merciless encroachment of riverbanks. These cataclysms lay waste to abodes, decimate crops, and rob livelihoods, often leaving destitution in their wake.

Perpetual poverty: The char inhabitants frequently grapple with poverty, their access to rudimentary services such as education, healthcare, and sanitation often curtailed. This vulnerability plunges them into the abyss of disease and destitution.

Isolation's clasp: Navigating the remoteness of char areas, where access to schools, healthcare, or sustenance can be a grueling ordeal. This isolation frequently births feelings of solitude and despair.

The unseen struggles of women: Women and girls within char areas find themselves confronting an extra layer of suffering, battling against discrimination and violence. This arduous journey can encompass physical brutality, verbal oppression, and social exclusion.

Childhood betrayed: The blight of child marriage frequently descends upon char areas, driven by poverty, ignorance, and societal norms. This robs young girls of their innocence, propelling them into a world of early motherhood and its associated perils.

A hungry desolation: The scarcity of nourishing sustenance, coupled with insufficient sanitation and hygiene facilities, fosters a climate of malnutrition within char areas. This inflicts physical ailments, particularly amongst the youth.

Investment eludes: Char areas remain starved of the investment poured into other regions of Bangladesh, often owing to their geographical remoteness and a lack of political sway. This dearth of resources hampers their progress and impedes the alleviation of their myriad challenges.

Quest for justice unfulfilled: Women and girls within char areas, grappling with discrimination and violence, frequently find justice elusive. Awareness of their rights remains scant, and the absence of robust legal support compounds their plight.

Voices of women suppressed: The struggle faced by women and girls in char areas resonates with the echoes of their muted cries. Confronting discrimination, violence, and barriers to education and employment, they persistently strive for a brighter future.

The unyielding shadow of hunger: Food insecurity looms large over char areas. The convergence of natural calamities, poverty, and market isolation forms the tapestry of hunger, eroding health and well-being.

Poverty's unrelenting grip: Poverty's vice-like grip tightens in char areas, thwarting access to elemental necessities such as food, shelter, and medical care. Its tendrils extend to encompass social isolation and discrimination.

Whispers of scarcity: Scarcity casts its shadow over char areas – echoing in the lack of clean water, sanitation, and electricity. The specter of food insecurity and malnutrition further accentuates their vulnerability.

We set forth on yet another captivating voyage through the enigmatic "char" areas of Bangladesh, where these river islands harbor untold mysteries. Within this captivating landscape, the journey toward empowerment for women and girls unfurls as a formidable quest, laden with challenges that beckon our concern. Imagine traversing into these remote territories, where the currents of both rivers and life intermingle, revealing the hardships faced by these resilient souls.

Consider this scene, in these distant corners, among every 100 women, only 25 possess the ability to read and write, in contrast to the 45 men who share this privilege. As we journey deeper, the workforce landscape emerges—barely 15 out of every 100 women participate, while 30 men do. These numbers, though seemingly stark, narrate tales of potentials unrealized, talents untapped, and opportunities unjustly divided. (Source: World Bank Study). Continuing our exploration, a heart-rending truth emerges, one out of every three women in these domains bears the heavy weight of physical or sexual violence. It's as though the river's flow carries not just life-sustaining waters, but also the burdens of their struggles, concealed beneath its shimmering surface. (Source: World Bank Study).

Now, let's shift our perspective and envision the realm of internal migration. Over a million lives have been uprooted from these char areas, compelled by forces such as natural disasters, shifting climates, and the unyielding grip of poverty. For women and girls, this journey takes on a particularly challenging hue. Imagine their vulnerability as they navigate unfamiliar terrains, confronting not only the hardships of displacement but also the looming shadows of exploitation and abuse. (Source: International Organization for Migration Study).

Transitioning once more, let's contemplate the domain of education within these landscapes. Picture entering a classroom, where overcrowded desks and scarce resources define the scene. Teachers strive to reach every child, especially the outnumbered girls. Here's a thought to ponder: of every 100 girls, merely 50 find their place in primary school. It's akin to a classroom half-full, while the other half yearns for a chance. (Source: BRAC Study).

Now, visualize the winding pathways of these char areas—often unpaved and rugged. Picture the struggles of traversing these routes, especially during the rainy season when the landscape morphs into a labyrinth of water. This journey poses a distinct challenge for women and girls, who often lack access to transportation, leaving their aspirations stranded by the shores of limited mobility. (Source: Asian Development Bank Study)

Women in char areas grapple with a multitude of challenges that disproportionately affect them. From health issues and sanitation woes to safety concerns, pregnancy-related difficulties, and daunting journeys, these women face an uphill battle.A study by BRAC in 2021 revealed a stark reality, women in char areas are twice as likely as men to experience malnutrition, battling anemia and infectious diseases like cholera and typhoid. These health disparities stem from limited healthcare access, unfamiliarity with hygiene practices, and the high cost of nutritious food.Sanitation remains a glaring issue. UNICEF's 2020 study unveiled a startling fact – only 10% of households in Char areas enjoy improved sanitation facilities. Consequently, women often resort to open defecation, exposing themselves to diseases like diarrhea and cholera.

Safety is far from guaranteed for these women. They face a higher risk of violence, including sexual assault, with a 2019 study by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics reporting that 30% of women in Char areas have encountered some form of violence.Pregnancy-related struggles are rife in these regions. According to a 2018 World Health Organization study, the maternal mortality rate in Char areas is double the national average due to limited access to prenatal care, inadequate nutrition, and the steep cost of childbirth.Enduring hardships is a common theme.

Women often toil in arduous conditions for extended hours to support their families. An International Labour Organization study in 2022 disclosed that 70% of women in Char areas engage in unpaid work.Internal migration adds to their plight. Many women seek urban prospects, only to face exploitation and bias. A 2021 Population Council study noted that women migrating from Char areas to urban zones are more likely to face informal sector employment and violence.The harrowing concern of trafficking looms large. Women can be coerced into sex work and exploitation. A 2020 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime study identified Bangladesh as a hub for human trafficking.The predicaments confronting these women are intricate and intertwined. The solution requires accessible education, healthcare, and job opportunities, alongside protection from discrimination and violence. Only then can they uplift their lives and those of their families.

Within this symphony of narratives and obstacles, the resilience of these women and girls resonates profoundly. Their strength, though often concealed like precious gems, radiates through the shadows of adversity. As we step back, a panorama of experiences and struggles unfurls in these char areas. The expedition toward empowerment embodies a multi-faceted odyssey, calling for our attention, empathy, and concerted action. Through our efforts, we aim to bridge the divides and empower these remarkable individuals to reshape their stories.

We explore the initiatives of government actions to uplift char areas, where tales of strength and struggle converge. Bangladesh's government has taken significant strides to enhance the lives of these inhabitants, including:

1.   Establishing schools and hospitals for better education and healthcare access.

2.   Offering microcredit loans to encourage local businesses.

3.   Relocating individuals from vulnerable areas to improve safety.

4.   Enforcing environmental protection with tree planting and pollution control.

5.   Empowering women through increased educational opportunities and microcredit access.

In the realm of government action, Bangladesh has undertaken significant efforts to uplift char areas, including:

1.   Establishing Infrastructure: Building schools and hospitals to enhance education and healthcare access.

2.   Microcredit Initiatives: Providing microcredit loans to stimulate local businesses.

3.   Safety Relocation: Moving vulnerable individuals to safer locations.

4.   Environmental Protection: Enforcing pollution control and planting trees for environmental preservation.

5.   Empowering Women: Facilitating increased educational opportunities and microcredit access for women.


These endeavours have yielded improvements, yet the journey remains ongoing. The Char Development and Settlement Project (CDSP), Char Livelihoods Improvement Project (CLIP), and Char Development and Protection Project (CDPP) present dedicated initiatives to address these challenges. NGOs like BRAC, The Hunger Project Bangladesh, Friendship and Gana Unnayan Kendra (GUK) contribute their efforts.

Implementing initiatives to enhance char areas in Bangladesh faces numerous challenges. Limited funding hampers the government's efforts, while the remote and inaccessible nature of these regions complicates implementation and monitoring. Corruption risks diverting resources, and insufficient coordination between government agencies and NGOs leads to duplicated efforts and service gaps. Cultural barriers and resistance to change impede progress, and the constant threat of natural disasters like floods and cyclones jeopardizes infrastructure and service continuity.

Enhancing char areas in Bangladesh faces challenges due to limited funding, remote locations, corruption risks, coordination gaps, cultural barriers, and natural disasters. Collaborative solutions are needed, including transparent funding allocation, anti-corruption measures, coordinated efforts, awareness campaigns, and disaster preparedness. Citizens can boost these efforts by advocating for funding, supporting NGOs, promoting sustainability, and fostering understanding. With government, non-government organisations, and citizens uniting, these challenges can be overcome, shaping a narrative of resilience and shared progress in char areas.

* Md. Mohiuddin Abir is a strategic development and resource mobilization expert E-mail: [email protected]