A global campaign to teach young girls to swim aims to save them from death by drowning during extreme weather events such as flooding that are worsened by climate change

Civil society activist Malini Mehra at the launch of the Teach a Girl to Swim campaign in Kolkata (Photo by Sanjay Sarkar)

Globally, a person dies every 1.5 seconds due to drowning, and the rate has quickened because of ever-increasing climate change impacts like large-scale flooding. The situation is all the more difficult for women and young girls who, often bound by social and cultural customs and taboos, don’t learn swimming and fall victim to such extreme weather events.

To turn this trend around, an international campaign has been launched to enhance climate resilience amongst girls by teaching them how to swim. The Teach a Girl to Swim (TAGS) campaign was publicly launched in Kolkata by Malini Mehra, an Indian civil society activist in climate change and an advisor to the head of the UN office of Disaster Risk Reduction.

After Kolkata, the campaign is scheduled to go to 12 cities across the world, with Dhaka, Beijing, Hanoi, Tokyo, Mexico and London on the immediate list. The campaign is supported and partnered by many UN bodies and organisations.

Around 360,000 people die every year due to drowning, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is the third leading cause of preventable deaths among children after malnutrition and diarrhoea, and has been exacerbated by climate change impacts like large-scale flooding. Mehra, who swam 10 km nonstop on Sunday morning at Calcutta Swimming Club near the Ganga River to kick off the campaign, observed that women and girls are more vulnerable to flooding.

“Woman and girls often remain bound by cultural and social taboos, which do not allow them to learn swimming and are particularly vulnerable at the face of floods and related disasters, which have become more frequent and intense in recent time due to changing climate,” Mehra, who is chief executive of GLOBE International, a network of parliamentarians active on climate change, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

Not gender-neutral

She pointed out that 90% of drowning-related deaths take place in developing countries and 50% of them involve children. “Disasters and drowning are not gender-neutral. Researches clearly point out that women and girls tend to die disproportionately higher than men and boys in disaster situations,” Mehra said. “According to IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), in 1991, during cyclone disasters in Bangladesh, 90% of the 140,000 people who died were women. Similar trends were found during tsunamis.”

Mehra pointed out that the threat is more pronounced in countries like India, Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines. “It is the single-largest killer of children in Bangladesh and the primary cause of injury death in children aged one to 14 in China,” she told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “We need to take the campaign to those girls who are from socioeconomically challenged parts of society and, more often than not, do not have the access and opportunity to learn swimming. “

On choosing Kolkata as the starting point of her campaign, Mehra said, “It was not only because I originally belong to this city but also because the city had a large number of swimming pools in my growing up period, almost like London.” Mehra is currently based in London.

Safety swimming

She said that a key focus of her advocacy is to ensure that “safety swimming for girls should be included in national climate change and disaster risk reduction strategies as a key element of the country’s adaptation to climate change.”

Apart from providing protection in case of a flood-like situation, swimming can also help provide appropriate lung fitness to children in this era of air pollution. “Look at the cities like Kolkata or Dhaka, and the range of diseases children have to suffer due to pollution,” Mehra said. “Regular swimming can be a great antidote and help in children getting appropriate lung fitness.”

Mehra plans to showcase the results of her campaign to the world during the next global climate summit that will be held in Poland in December this year.

 

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