I met Lipi Begum a few months back at her home in a village in south-western coastal Bangladesh. Her uterus has continuously been displaced from its original place for 13 years. At first, when she started describing her health condition, I wasn’t able to comprehend what she was saying. But when I realised what she was trying to say, it shook me to my core. Has this really happened in her life? Is this even possible at all?
Gradually, when I started connecting the dots, relating the statistics and evidence with her situation, I realised how common this is among women in coastal Bangladesh. In the case of Lipi, her family spent a considerable amount of their earnings over the past 13 years to treat her and to hold her uterus in the place it should be. Indeed, it is a tough choice for a family with limited income and endless crises. As she had no health insurance, she had to cut all other expenses, including the fundamental needs of her family, like food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, etc. She can’t go fishing in the river nearby. So, her family had to depend on her husband’s sole income.
Her two babies had died in her womb. Even her life is at risk now, as the doctor warned her she had to remove her uterus through surgery as soon as possible. She is waiting for the family to arrange money for the operation. On the other hand, she wishes to have another child before the final removal of her uterus. But she knows that she has only two options left: either removal of her uterus or a slow and painful journey to death.
I was born on the same coastal line but on the other side of the country. Our people use a proverb: “You can’t rest assured as you are not in your mother’s womb.” It means the mother’s womb is the safest place in the world. Why did Lipi Begum’s two babies have to die even before being born in their mother’s womb? Who is responsible for this?
Lipi knows all of these sufferings are caused only by saltwater invasion. But she doesn’t know the people behind it.
She is not alone. According to data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics in 2011, about 20 million people were affected by saltwater, and around half were women. In a recent tour to coastal Bangladesh, our team talked to at least 30 women suffering from a certain level of salinity problem.
As a radio journalist in 2010, I joined and covered a trial process at a symbolic climate court at Bangabandhu International Conference Center in Dhaka in 2010, where juries held the developed world responsible for climate change. The court ordered compensation from the developed world. The trial was symbolic, and the court didn’t have the actual jurisdiction to implement its judgement even though the loss and damages, the sufferings and the tears of the people were cruelly substantial. I met one of the female litigants at that trial venue who lost her fisherman-husband in a natural disaster, and the disaster was the impact of climate change. Her husband will never return to take care of the family, earn and feed her and their children.
But I met Rowshan Akhter, now a retired teacher, who has a fascinating story about going to a real court to hold the culprit responsible for the death of her journalist husband, Mozammel Hossain Montu. This case is considered the first of its kind for many people in the judiciary of Bangladesh to claim compensation for a death in a road transport accident. All three stages of the court of the land, the judge court, the High Court and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, delivered their landmark judgement in favour of her.
Her husband died on Dec 3, 1989. Instead of focusing on sending the driver to jail, she fought for compensation on six heads: loss of potential earnings of her husband, damage caused to the infants for being deprived of father’s affection, care and nursing; damage caused to the widow for being deprived of husband’s affection, care and nursing; loss of post-retirement earnings; loss of sons’ ability to use their father’s goodwill; damage and shock caused to the deceased’s other family members by the premature death. The High Court and the Appellate Division approved compensation for the first four heads. According to the Appellate Division’s judgement, total compensation was more than Tk 17 million.
This case opened the opportunity to claim compensation for accidental deaths in Bangladesh. The case of famous Bangladeshi filmmaker Tareque Masud is one of them. A High Court bench ordered three responsible parties to compensate Masud’s family with Tk 46.17 million in a judgment. In road accident cases, litigants have two options to seek compensation: road transport law for exclusive incidents related to road accidents and tort law for any damage.
All personal loss and damage must be acknowledged and compensated, whether accidental on the road or climate change-induced incidents. So Lipi or any other climate survivors should have the opportunity to claim compensation from liable parties for their real damage, and this damage money is not a kindness; it’s a legal obligation.
As the government is responsible for the lives and property of citizens, they must claim compensation from climate abusers. It is mentioned again in the High Court verdict in Rowshan’s case: “Every child is born with the expectation of life and with constitutionally guaranteed right to basic requirements for living. Death is inevitable, but premature death in whatever form is not expected and cannot be consoled. Accidental death is also a premature death. The government is answerable to all such premature deaths as it is to protect the citizen and is responsible for the life of a citizen; as such, when any one of whatever class, society, or place meets death by accident, it should be the duty of the government to mitigate the sufferings of the survivors of the family.”
The constitution of Bangladesh also guarantees the protection of law to the life, liberty, body, reputation, and property of every citizen and every other person within Bangladesh’s territory.
What actions have been taken to protect climate survivors’ lives, bodies and property in these circumstances? Does it take enough action to protect those things?
From COP28, the loss and damage fund will start its journey. But how will it compensate for the loss and damage of the most marginal people living in the frontline countries like Bangladesh? Will the people and countries pay Lipi Begum as compensation for all the suffering that she is undergoing? Will they pay her at all? If yes, how? Will she get it through a determined process, or will she have to go to regular court to fight for 34 long years like Rowshan to get the damages? Will she survive to see her victory?
Tort law is not a law of Bangladeshi origin. It’s Roman law, well-known and practised in the Western judiciaries. Lipi’s compensation could be much higher if she had just been born on England’s coastline or any other Western country.
[Suliman Niloy is a development professional and freelance journalist. He is a former senior legal affairs correspondent of Bangladesh’s first online news portal, bdnews24.com]