The women fighting climate change in Bangladesh

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In disaster-prone areas like Barishal, a major city that lies on the bank of Kirtankhola river in Bangladesh, life for women is a constant struggle. Against the backdrop of social and economic marginalisation, which these women face daily, frequent flooding and cyclones pose an additional and perpetual threat to their families and careers.

As part of its ongoing campaign to raise awareness for issues that directly affect women in areas like Barishal, British Red Cross invited Rosie Matheson to photograph members of the Women’s Squad — a community group funded and set up by the NGO. Over the course of a week, Matheson visited several communities, capturing stories about how these women are finding solutions to tackle issues that affect their small businesses and families.

Mahmuda, 36, the mother of three, is a member of the Hatkhola Women’s Squad. In 2019 she received a cash grant from the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, which has enabled her to provide a small but important income for her family. Now she has enough money to send her sons to school and pay medical bills. © Rosie Matheson / British Red Cross.
Bangladesh is especially vulnerable to cyclones because of its location at the head of the Bay of Bengal, the sea-level geography of its coastal area, and the lack of coastal protection systems. © Rosie Matheson / British Red Cross.

Matheson is a documentary and portrait photographer based in London and Brighton. She has worked with numerous fashion brands and magazines including Nike, Adidas and i-D, but this is the first time she has collaborated with an NGO.

“It was important to me to photograph these women as I would anyone else. With everything I shoot, there is a sense of responsibility of capturing someone as honestly and as true to life as possible,” she says. “You want to do a story justice. I wanted to stay as far away from the typical coldly-lit, depressing images you see of developing countries, and try to communicate the similarities between us all and a sense of relatability.”

Misti, 37, Rasulpur, Barishal. © Rosie Matheson / British Red Cross.

Among the people Matheson photographed is Misti, a 37-year-old taxi-boat driver in Barishal. Among a workforce of over 40 drivers, Misiti is one of only four female employees. Like many people in her community, Misti’s whole life has been affected by extreme weather events. In 2007, her family houseboat was destroyed during the devastating cyclone Sidr, and she has since been made homeless three times. With support from the Women’s Squad initiative, she was able to buy a new boat, and is now saving up to buy land to build a house.

Ayesha , 40, is the water gypsy community. She is not happy about living in the boat, she wants to have a home and wants to live on land. She talked about how they dont catch as much fish as before and that there are more cyclones/natural disasters than before. Through the help of a British Red Cross grant, she was able to repair her boat and bought fishing net. © Rosie Matheson / British Red Cross.
© Rosie Matheson / British Red Cross.

Other subjects include Nargis, 25, who was able to start a business selling cakes and khichdi, an Indian dish made from rice and lentils, and Ayesha, 40, a fisherwoman who has been able to repair and protect her boat from adverse weather. 

“Sometimes it can be hard to connect with something so far away from you and so different to how you see yourself,” says Matheson, who believes that photography is particularly effective for communicating complex stories, but also as a way of connecting with people. “When you meet someone, all of that falls away; you’re both human — their problems aren’t too far from your own.”

© Rosie Matheson / British Red Cross.

Donations made to the British Red Cross through UK Aid Match, up to the value of £2m, will be doubled by the UK government. With your help, we can support thousands of strong women – and, as a result, their communities – to be even stronger. 

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.