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22 May 2019 In Bangladesh, women’s right to clean air starts in the kitchen

When the sun’s first rays hit the green paddy fields in Ghagotpada in northern Bangladesh, fifty-year-old Mafruha is already hard at work in her kitchen. In this…

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When the sun’s first rays hit the green paddy fields in Ghagotpada in northern Bangladesh, fifty-year-old Mafruha is already hard at work in her kitchen. In this impoverished village, her home is a haven, always teeming with other women. While they mingle, Mafruha is whipping up delicacies for her visitors.

Travelling to Ghagotpada, one cannot miss the jarring sight of numerous brick kilns dotting the horizon. As the kilns noisily churn out harmful gases, polluting the air around them, the cramped kitchens of Ghagotpada fill up with smoke. The country is confronting a dire air pollution problem, with air quality index rankings pegging Dhaka as the third most polluted city in the world.

Yet beyond urban centres, stories of rural air pollution seldom make news. Every year, indoor air pollution contributes to 49,000 premature deaths in Bangladesh. While the country’s Seventh Five Year Plan—its guiding development policy—sets out strong measures to tackle air pollution from brick kilns, vehicular emissions and waste burning, it lacks in measures to tackle indoor air pollution.

Whose right to clean air is it anyway?

More than 41 per cent of households in Bangladesh still rely on firewood as the main cooking fuel. In Mafruha’s household, collecting firewood, dung, leaves and wood residues falls squarely on her and her daughters’ shoulders. By virtue of their roles, the burden of indoor air pollution is disproportionately heavier on women, girls and children.

While the constitution and the courts of Bangladesh recognize that the right to life encompasses the right to clean air, the implementation and enforcement of this right remain a challenge. Yet without the opportunities and resources to exercise these rights and influence decisions and policies alike, women and marginalized communities continue to remain vulnerable to indoor air pollution.

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Photo by UN Environment/ Prashanthi Subramaniam

Cleaner cookstoves, cleaner air

For many years, Mafruha used a traditional clay stove, the chulla, in a badly ventilated kitchen. The discomfort of respiratory trouble and persistent coughs had become so routine that no one blinked an eye. 

Despite earlier attempts by the government, it was not until a local non-governmental organization, supported by the Infrastructure Development Cooperation Limited, engaged Mafruha and other women to understand the uses and benefits of the cookstove, that it finally seemed like a viable alternative.

“It cost us 400–500 takas [US$4.75–US$6] to buy and install the new cookstove. We were supported by the non-governmental organization to take a loan because we couldn’t afford it. The non-governmental organization’s workers and people from the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation also helped us understand better how to use it, clean it and repair it,” explains Mafruha.

Over time, she has convinced others to also invest in similar cookstoves. Her daughter now works with the local non-governmental organization, spreading the message of clean fuel and clean cookstoves to other women in nearby villages. Improved cookstoves are smoke-free and fuel-efficient. Households with improved cookstoves experience lesser levels of [particulate matter] PM2.5, PM10 and carbon monoxide, ensuring safer and healthier environments for families.

Reaching the last mile

Yet, for what can seem as a straightforward solution to tackle indoor air pollution, there continue to be hurdles in realizing its impact. The Government of Bangladesh has set its sights on reaching 30 million households with improved cookstoves by 2030, but there is still a long way to go before reaching every user.

While the market is now flooded with flimsy and cheap options, investing in good quality, improved cookstoves can still be a costly proposition. In Ghagotpada itself, some families struggle to repay loans taken to buy cookstoves. Often loans are taken in the women’s names but men face the pressure of repaying them on time. Repairing and maintaining the stoves also present a challenge, with women’s skills not nurtured to undertake that maintenance. Finally, the biggest strides that need to be made are in changing deep-rooted social norms and behaviours. Rewriting social norms requires giving women access to information and resources, while enabling them to make decisions to invest in their own health and well-being.

Until then, Mafruha and the women of Ghagotpada are continuing to spread the word and change minds, keeping at the fight to #beatairpollution.

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Photo by UN Environment/ Prashanthi Subramaniam

Air pollution is the theme for World Environment Day on 5 June 2019. The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. Learn more about how air pollution affects you, and what is being done to clean the air. What are you doing to reduce your emissions footprint and #BeatAirPollution?

The 2019 World Environment Day is hosted by China.

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UN Environment, through the “EmPower: Women for Climate-Resilient Societies” project, aims to amplify the voices of women and marginalized groups in climate action and help them access clean energy to build resilient lives and livelihoods. EmPower is run jointly with UN Women, with the support of the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Viet Nam.

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