Women’s livelihoods in vulnerable coastlines


Women’s livelihoods in vulnerable coastlines

Women’s livelihoods in vulnerable coastlines 323 431 Ocean Decade

With over 40% of the global population living within 100km of the coast – a trend on the rise – and increasingly exposed to climate risks, urgent and innovative adaptation solutions are needed to face the many and diverse challenges to the communities and the ecosystems in these areas. Through a joint call for fellows launched by the AXA Research Fund and UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission as part of the Ocean Decade, seven ground-breaking postdoctoral research projects have been endorsed as part of the Ocean Decade and will strengthen science-based interventions for coastal livelihood preservation and resilience.

A social and environmental anthropologist, Dr. Megnaa Mehtta, is interested in exploring the values, mythologies and ideas of well-being in global conservation and political ecology. During her two-year AXA Research Fund – IOC/UNESCO fellowship at University College London, U.K., she will conduct long-term ethnographic fieldwork to gain a better understanding of women’s livelihoods in vulnerable coastlines using gender-disaggregated data.

“I will investigate several forms of differentiated vulnerability among women who reside along the coastline of the Bay of Bengal,” explains Megnaa, who grew up in northern India. “My aim is to analyze intra-household inequalities, endemic health and livelihood risks, and migration-related pressures.”

Climate change has already affected terrestrial, freshwater and ocean ecosystems around the world, causing losses and damages to humans as well as entire ecosystems. The climate crisis disproportionately hits poor populations in developing countries and in the context of South Asia these are groups that often belong to the lowest caste groups, who both rely on natural resources for their subsistence and are also often their most vigilant custodians. Moreover, its impact on gender is unequal. Research has shown that women experience climate-related risks differently than men. Often this is not because they are more reliant on ‘natural resources’ but because it is women who are expected to do the labor involved in sustaining and maintaining the household.[1]

Through her AXA Research Fund fellowship launched in May 2023, Megnaa will draw on her seven years of research in disaster-prone coastlines of the Bengal Delta to understand how women perceive their own risks and vulnerabilities both in their coastal villages and on their migration journeys away from home.

“My research moves away from the reductive relationship between the ongoing agrarian and climate crisis to out-migration, communities have been moving on a seasonal and semi-permanent and permanent basis from their homes for decades if not centuries” she states. “Instead of climate as being the sole driver to these migratory journeys, my research will propose alternative discourses of displacement, mobility and migration that highlight pre-existing socio-environmental vulnerabilities.”

Megnaa will use mixed methods, including qualitative, quantitative and geospatial data, pertaining to the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest on Earth. The Sundarbans have an average elevation of less than one meter above sea level, which makes this region highly vulnerable to flooding and major tropical cyclones, and threatens the habitats of many species and human existence.[2] 

Thanks to in-depth interviews and collecting household and worksite surveys as well as migration histories, Megnaa will disaggregate the daily struggles, broader risks, livelihood opportunities and coping mechanisms of women, girls and men.

To propose an understanding of climate change that considers women’s long-term, pre-existing vulnerabilities, she will investigate three specific indicators among Sundarbans residents. The first one relates to women’s migration motivations, which can be dictated by desires to escape abusive households or to find ways of securing a better future for their children’s lives. Migration can be an escape but can also contribute to increasing women’s vulnerability as they join the informal labor market[3]  with deplorable living conditions, poor wages, and no safety nets.

The second indicator pertains to understanding women’s perceptions of risk vis-à-vis livelihood opportunities and health infrastructures available within the village. In addition to reproducing the household, women partake in wage labor ranging from prawn-seed collection, crab collecting, and are often responsible for rearing fish, duck, goat, chicken in the homestead and while also working on agricultural fields to sow and harvest paddy. Gendered health risks stem from these livelihoods but are also related to specific issues within the woman’s life course from birth to maternity, menopause, and old age.

The third indicator linked to intra-household inequalities will investigate differential vulnerability taking into consideration a range of socio-economic factors including women headed-households, orphaned children,  disability within households, land ownership, caste and religious background, homestead location and access to or the lack-thereof of networks of familial and kinship support.

Since the launch of the project, one of the most vulnerable groups in the coastlines of the Sundarbans with whom Megnaa has been working are group of women known as ‘tiger widows’ or byagrabidhaba. As of the 2021-2022 tiger estimation census, the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (STR)—a global conservation hotspot—has 96 adult tigers. This is the only mangrove forest in the world home to Bengal tigers, and as a result, the interest to safeguard these tigers at a time when the climate crisis is impacting biodiversity loss is immense. These tigers however attack humans. Many Sundarbans residents’ who ‘do the jungle’, that is crab collectors, fishers, and honey collectors have become tiger-prey. It is estimated that 3000 men and women have been killed by tigers in the Sundarbans. Some elderly residents of the region believe that the number is 6000 or more in the past five decades.

In July of 2023, in a village named Satjelia, hugging the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, 70 women sat crammed on the floor of a room that had partially been constructed. More women were trickling in from far flung islands spread across the South 24 Parganas district. The women ranged from being as young as 20 years old to elderly 80-year-olds. They were Muslim, Hindu and adivasi. The majority belonged to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe groups: Poundra Khoitra, Namasudra, Raj Bongshi, Bhumij and Munda. What they had in common was that each of their husbands had been killed by a tiger while ‘doing the jungle’ in the mangrove creeks opposite their homes. Some of the women present had lost their husbands within the past year, some a few years ago and for others it had been decades ago. Not a single woman gathered had received the compensation in the event of a wild animal’s attack stipulated under the Wildlife Protection Act of the Indian Government.

This meeting with over 70 widows in Satjelia was the first of its kind, facilitated by a West Bengal Fishers’ Union and was a congregation of the Sundarban Byagrabidhaba Samiti or the ‘Sundarbans Tiger Widows Collective’, who had been raising funds to build a resource centre for ‘tiger widows.’ The resource centre was still incomplete, but this was one of the inaugural meetings in which the women present were given information around the law, and the steps they ought to undertake in order to gain their due.

Alongside a deeper understanding of thier lives, thier everyday vulnerabilities and the struggles for the future of thier children, Megnaa is collaborating with two Kolkata-based lawyers in order to fight for legal compensation that is due to these women. The Wildlife Protection Act stipulates that any death due to a wild animal ought to be compensated with 5 lakh rupees (GBP5000). Within what is already a vulnerable population, ‘tiger widows’ are some of the most precarious groups who face the conjugated form of economic anxieties and mental distress.

While they are some of the most vulnerable, they are also some of the most prominent custodians of the coastlines. Furthermore, in addition to understanding the specificities of their vulnerability, Megnaa will examine the possibilities and limitations of gendered forms of coastline knowledge across three specific arenas in the Sundarbans. To achieve this, she will differentiate the notion of a “coastline” by focusing on the experiential knowledge that arises from living near different types of water bodies. Specifically, she will analyze the relationship between women living in Sundarbans coastal areas and these water bodies, including their valuation and perceptions of ecological threats and vulnerabilities.

With conservation in times of climate change being one of the foremost challenges, the Forest Department has been keen on planting mangroves which may act as future cyclone barriers. Several mangrove plantations overseen by the Forest Department were unable to survive. The saplings that have indeed taken root and are growing are ones that were planted by women residents of these coastlines. Women residing in these coastlines, some of them who happen to be ‘tiger widows’ have a knowledge of how to plant mangroves and the specific locations that are appropriate for such plantations. They are acutely aware of the benefits of the mangroves in preventing soil erosion. It is their everyday care towards these saplings that has allowed them to flourish. It is precisely this understanding of coastal ecologies that far exceeds what might be considered ‘scientific forestry’ implemented by the Forest Department.

She asked Pushpa, a tiger widow, in an interview what her aspirations for a secure coastline and livelihood were. She said, “we are fighting for compensation from the government…but we have got nothing so far. Without my husband it is impossible to take care of my children, of their future, of my household…yet I am trying to take care of the whole village.” Pushpa is responsible for planting 200 Sundari trees in the past three years. She continues, “it is the ship vessels that carry fly ash through the rivers opposite our homes which are causing so much disturbance to the fish, to the embankments, to our homes on the river’s edge…our wooden boats are being stopped but these ship vessels are increasing in number.” Puspha is referring to the thousands of ship vessels that are traversing the Matlla from the port of Kolkata to the port of Mongla and Dhaka with fly ash. They often capsize with fly ash that enters the Bay of Bengal but even just their ordinary movements causes widespread erosion, disturbs the breeding of fish and crabs and is a constant pollutant of one of the world’s most biodiverse coastlines located in the Bay of Bengal.

In the months that follow, Megnaa intends to further explore these interconnections of women’s vulnerabilities as well as their depth of knowledge and the forms of degradation to these coastlines that are affecting both human and nonhuman lives. With many other regions in the world also confronted with challenges at the intersection of conservation, climate-related risks and poverty, Megnaa hopes that her project will enable cross-regional comparisons across coastal livelihoods risks and adaptive possibilities.

“Despite being focused on the ecology of the Sundarbans, my research aims to be relevant and applicable to other coastal areas where the populations are facing similar issues,” she concludes. “The goal is to better inform decision-making on climate change adaptation and gender to improve the living conditions of women.”

For more details on Megnaa’s project, visit her Action page on the Ocean Decade website and her project page on the AXA Research Fund website.

For more details on all the winning projects, visit the AXA Postdoctoral Fellows page.



The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC/UNESCO) promotes international cooperation in marine sciences to improve management of the ocean, coasts and marine resources. The IOC enables its 150 Member States to work together by coordinating programmes in capacity development, ocean observations and services, ocean science and tsunami warning. The work of the IOC contributes to the mission of UNESCO to promote the advancement of science and its applications to develop knowledge and capacity, key to economic and social progress, the basis of peace and sustainable development.

About the Ocean Decade:

Proclaimed in 2017 by the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) (‘the Ocean Decade’) seeks to stimulate ocean science and knowledge generation to reverse the decline of the state of the ocean system and catalyse new opportunities for sustainable development of this massive marine ecosystem. The vision of the Ocean Decade is ‘the science we need for the ocean we want’. The Ocean Decade provides a convening framework for scientists and stakeholders from diverse sectors to develop the scientific knowledge and the partnerships needed to accelerate and harness advances in ocean science to achieve a better understanding of the ocean system, and deliver science-based solutions to achieve the 2030 Agenda. The UN General Assembly mandated UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC/UNESCO) to coordinate the preparations and implementation of the Decade.

About the AXA Research Fund:

The AXA Research Fund was launched in 2008 to address the most important issues facing our planet. Its mission is to support scientific research in key areas related to risk and to help inform science-based decision-making in both the public and private sectors. Since its launch, the AXA Research Fund has committed a total of €250M to scientific funding and supported nearly 700 research projects in the areas of health, climate and environment, and socio-economics.

[1] UNFCCC. 2022. Dimensions and examples of the gender-differentiated impacts of climate change, the role of women as agents of change and opportunities for women. Synthesis report by the secretariat.

[2] The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). 2020. The Sundarbans and Climate Change.

[3] Choksi, P., et al. 2021. Sensitivity of seasonal migration to climatic variability in central India. Environmental Research Letters 16(6), (2021).


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