Mary Carenbauer

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Mary Carenbauer is an American student pursuing an MSc in Environment and Development from the University of Edinburgh. She is currently working with the Dhaka, Bangladesh team on the "Technology and the Future of Work" project.

Recommended reading: http://www.practicalaction.org

Posts by Mary

  • Role of women waste pickers in Dhaka

    January 8th, 2016

    Beneath the glaring afternoon sun, I watch as a woman crouches roadside at the base of a city garbage container, referred to as a “dustbin”. Using her unprotected hands, she dutifully sorts through the waste, separating out non-perishable items of value such as plastic, paper, and glass. These items are placed in a woven basket to be sold to a local scrap shop and then recycled. She is considered a “tokai”- a waste recyclable wastepicker. She is one of the estimated 120,000 in Dhaka.

    For the “Technology and the Future of Work” project, the Dhaka office has chosen to focus the waste sector interviews on the informal workers who collect waste from households. From there, it is transported by rickshaw van to the local dustbin. Although it varies in every neighbourhood, there is generally a system of microenterprises organising the collection. Although still in many ways an unfavourable and marginalised profession, being a waste collector requires some capital, allows for a fixed monthly salary, and has a certain level of visibility within the city. This role is predominantly undertaken by men. As explained by my friend and research partner Lamia, it is “a social norm” that women are not the waste collectors; rather, they are usually the tokai earning a precarious daily wage.

    waste picker on siteThe strategy for fieldwork designated one research pair to focus on South Dhaka and the other to focus on North Dhaka. From 11 to 30 May, Lamia and I visited 12 areas in South Dhaka. On the first day in the field, we spoke a woman tokai. She shared that she would like to purchase a collection van, but did not have the money and also thought that no one would be interested in selling her a van due to her gender. She worked formerly as a household maid, but after the death of her husband began waste picking as a means to earn more money. She has a son who assists her. She chose to call her story “I am helpless”.

    female waste picker with collection vanOn our fifth day of interviews, I was surprised and curious to meet a woman waste picker who collects from households. She explained that her husband needed assistance to pull the van and was unable to finance an employee, so they began to share the work. They receive only one salary from their supervisor. Although she expressed no discrimination from other male workers, she said she does not wish this work for other women, as it is “dirty” and “not nice”. Her work helping her husband seemed to me an exception, a visible overstep of a gender boundary.

    As the fieldwork progressed, Lamia and I traveled across South Dhaka. Interestingly, changing areas brought changing gender dynamics. In Moghbazar and Malibagh, we met several women waste workers who collected waste from every flat and transported it to the dustbin. One respondent explained she faced no social problems doing this work. “People don’t give me any trouble”, she said, “And this work doesn’t change the way that people view me. This is because at the end of the day, I can go home and I can wash my hands and then I am clean. Then I am the same as anyone else”.

    Factors such as gender, class, and race compound to influence both what women earn, and what work is available to them. As Dhaka city has no formal recycling system, waste pickers are the primary processors in a system of both economic and environmental benefit. Women may be emerging as the new face of the informal recycling chain in Dhaka in terms of participation, but it is often a face veiled from public or political recognition; a face kept looking down at a basket behind a dustbin. However, gender and class have demonstrated an interesting and unexpected relationship for women’s work opportunities in the waste sector.

    Far greater numbers of women waste collectors, who also separate and sell the recyclables, were visible in lower socioeconomic areas in the city. I asked Lamia about these variations. She explained that our earlier interviews had been in posher areas, and now we had transitioned. It seemed that in the less wealthy areas, there was less stigma around women’s involvement in waste work. These observations negated my previous ideas that increased income, and assumed increased education, necessarily leads to increased gender positioning- at least in the informal waste sector. Lamia nodded to draw my attention to the happenings around us and explained, “you see this man, and he is here fixing his rickshaw. And next to him, this woman is depositing the waste in the dustbin. And there are also men working with the waste. They are all working for their survival. In that way, it doesn’t matter that he is man and she is woman. In that way, they are the same”.

    Additional Reading

    Chen, M. (2001). Women and Informality: A Global Picture, the Global Movement. SAIS Review, 21(1), pp.71-82.

    Chen, M., Vanek, J. and Carr, M. (2004). Mainstreaming informal employment and gender in poverty reduction. London: Commonwealth Secretariat and International Development Research Centre.

    Waste Concern, (2004). Country Paper Bangladesh. Dhaka, pp.1-20.

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