When waste works for women

UN Environment | Oct 7, 2019 at 12:00 AM

A new UN Environment Programme report shows how waste management is closely linked to gender inequality

“Women can’t be truck drivers because it is dirty work. How would she cook for her family in the evening with dirty hands?”

Such is the sentiment of one official at Ulaanbaatar TUK, a public company that collects waste in Mongolia’s capital. It’s an opinion by no means limited to one official, nor unique to one country. An employee of Greener Way, a private waste management company in Bhutan, claims that “there are only men in collection because women cannot handle emptying the heavy dustbins”.

Of course, these gender-biased attitudes clash harshly with reality. Women have traditionally been more involved in the waste management sector - usually are working for free.

And despite bias against them, their role continues to be outsized and critical to the sector, according to new research conducted by the UN Environment Programme and published in a new report released today, the Gender and Waste Nexus: Experiences from Bhutan, Mongolia and Nepal.

Significantly, the report also indicates there is every possibility to advance gender equality with intelligent waste management policies.

“We see division of labour in all sectors based on outdated ideas of gender roles and stereotypes,” says Claudia Giacovelli, Associate Programme Officer at the UN Environment Programme’s International Environmental Technology Centre, where the report was coordinated. “This is also the case in the waste sector. Fortunately, by focusing on sustainability, we are seeing women’s roles in waste management evolve and improve. This is giving them employment opportunities that help them play a more equal role in society”.

For Lilawati Shah, a 39-year-old mother of four on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal, it’s an opportunity for independence and to give back. She and her husband opened a kawadi (scrap) shop in 2004. “Today I can buy and sell used recycling items independently,” says Shah. “I am proud that I contribute equally to decision making as well as being part of the solution not only in my family but to my community”.

In Bhutan, Karma, 43, is equally proud of the impact she’s had. She heads an association of 150 women that advocates for better waste management in their community. Dozens of women in the association make and sell products from collected plastic waste. Others have recently been trained in making compost from organic waste.

“When I first came to live in this community 21 years ago, the surroundings were polluted with waste and everyone in Thimphu criticized our community for being extremely filthy,” she says.

“Today, we clean our surroundings twice a week, segregate our own waste, collect plastic bottles from all the homes to sell to scrap-dealers, and recycle. You will see that our community is one of the cleanest residential communities in Thimphu. I have also become very passionate about advocating for proper waste management. I always call-out people who litter in the streets, whether they like it or not!”

And in Mongolia, it is a woman who runs one of the largest recycling collection sites in the country’s capital. Tserenjav Sodnompil, the 59-year-old founder of the facility, has expanded her operations so much that she now employs her daughter to run the site.

But where advances have been made in training and enabling women to benefit more fully from the waste management sector, obstacles still remain.

In the three countries surveyed, women have majority representation in many informal roles such as waste pickers at dump sites. However, as the waste systems professionalize, men are often the beneficiaries, taking more lucrative and safer jobs as they become available.

And while the report focused only on three countries, Giacovelli says that the findings are not unique to them.

“We’ve seen more and more research and practitioner evidence that waste management is not gender neutral. We know that inequalities that exist in society permeate this sector,” she says.

“But things can change for the better. If policymakers, businesses and communities can overcome the traditional stereotypes, waste management presents a huge opportunity to strengthen the equal participation of women and men in society”.

Since 2016, UN Environment Programme’s International Environmental Technology Centre has been working on a waste and climate change project to reduce the impacts of the waste sector on the climate, through capacity strengthening and policy support at the national and local level in Bhutan, Mongolia and Nepal. The ‘Waste and Climate Change’ project is funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) and UNEP-IETC works with national partners for its execution. The Gender and Waste Nexus report is developed jointly with the   the Global Resource Information Database Arendal.