Have you ever looked at his or her face? (S)he is always dressed in some darkish clothes, with many stains, carrying the ubiquitous sack, or is it a black polythene bag? Yes, may find it difficult to remember the person's face, since you usually see only a hunched over back and hands rustling and rummaging through your trash. When you peek out your window or walk by, it's uncomfortable, isn't it?
It's like the confessor who does not need to absolve you, just wants to sift through and thoroughly examine everything you discard, piece by piece. Sometimes an adult, sometimes a child, female or male - but always there when you put out your trash for collection, or when it gets to the landfill after the waste company collects it from your front door.
However, this seemingly voiceless person has a voice. (S)he belongs to a group of waste pickers who are represented at COP 17 in Durban. The South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) hosted a session where waste pickers from different parts of the globe converged to share ideas and strategies to secure their jobs while saving the environment.
Even as the presenters spoke in four languages, English, Hindi, Portuguese and Zulu, the waste pickers united as one people and could not be bogged down by officialdom. They are part of the COP 17 proceedings; they are proud of their work and are keen to share solutions on some of the challenges women and men encounter in waste disposal.
Waste management in urban areas is increasingly becoming a source of employment for community members, in particular women. The income earned from selling waste supports families, sends children to school, and pays for health services for the family.
However, the waste pickers at COP 17 raised their voice, protesting the entry of big corporations in the business of waste collection, saying that taking away this entrepreneurial activity may destroy fragile livelihoods. These activities can include buying and selling household garbage, re-using and recycling waste materials, and collecting and disposing of human and solid wastes in a safe manner.
According to the speakers, despite being an essential service, waste picking is still undervalued and both women and men involved receive minimal income. Yet the job requires them to collect waste, sort through it manually and sometimes clean it.
The waste pickers also outlined that there are health and safety concerns. For example, there is very little security for women at landfill sites. This unregulated space leaves women prone to sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape. Sometimes men use sexual harassment to push women out of this line of economic activity.
The waste pickers also do not have protective clothing. Toxic waste from industrial sites and hospitals are a threat to the health of waste pickers. For example, health institutions at times do not follow proper procedures for discarding dangerous waste, such as syringes, which end up in landfills.
However, the waste pickers offered solutions to the waste management problem. The say that local government should empower waste pickers to impart knowledge to households on how best to dispose of waste, thereby increasing the quality and value of the waste material they collect. Once integrated into local government waste collection programmes, waste pickers can have a regular monthly income.
No documentation exists on the gender specific health risks of working with waste materials and government should invest in research. Often, people who have physical contact with raw waste materials contract diseases like hepatitis and diarrhoea and suffer eye and skin infections. Thus, the gender division of labour in this profession and the health risks thereof are essential to understand.
A gender-sensitive project approach and a clear commitment to gender equity and the empowerment of women are critical in waste management. Thorough approaches and attention to gender can increase project effectiveness, avoid costly mistakes, and ensure equitable access to livelihoods, resources or benefits, resulting from which waste management.
Florence Sipalla is a writer with the African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWCFS). This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service and AWCFS special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence and COP 17 Conference.
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