Dignifying Lives of Women in Waste Management: Challenges and Way forward


April 10th, 2019

Earlier in March at the 2019 UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW63) I was able to share some initial insights about the gender issues facing women in Bangladesh who earn a living from solid waste management – in collecting rubbish from households and streets or in the recycling or reuse.

As the urban population of Bangladesh continues to rise, and to rise at rates faster than the rest of South Asia, the challenge of dealing with ever-growing volumes of solid waste is also increasing as well as concerns on the safety and well-being of waste workers who are often on the front-line of providing much needed services to households and communities. Only around 55% of generated waste is ever collected. Currently roles are divided with:

  • Municipalities provide staff who sweep streets. They also provide large communal skips or bins for people to dispose of waste, which they empty and transport to a disposal site
  • NGOs, CBOs or sometimes private companies provide a patchy service of household collection, taking the rubbish to the communal collection points.
  • Informal sector businesses and individuals also make money by picking waste, sorting it, and selling it on to be recycled.

Gendered roles in the solid waste system

Women and men play different roles in this system. Women’s participation tends to be limited to jobs at the lower level of the chain including sweeping streets, apartments, markets, offices, and health centers; collection of mixed wastes and supporting their male partners to carry and dispose of waste in the bins/transfer stations. A few women are pick recyclable waste from bins, and help to sort and process wastes at plastic and organic waste recycling companies. As a result, women on average earn half that of men in the sector.

Working conditions are poor, and women face particular risks

Both men and women mostly earn money as day labourers. They often lack protective equipment and many suffer illness or injury, but being unable to work means not being paid. They are also not part of insurance or savings schemes. Harassment by employers and law enforcement agencies and disrespect from communities are a regular part of their life. It is hard for them to move into other professions because they are viewed as ‘untouchables’ by others in the community.

Women face particular risks. Street sweeping or cleaning of shops and offices often takes place at night or the early morning, and working in the dark leaves them vulnerable to harassment or abuse. They often lack access to toilets while they are working, and have not place to rest for a break. This can be even more difficult during menstruation or pregnancy when they may continue to have to deal with heavy workloads.

Women’s discrimination is overlooked

These poor working conditions and inequalities for women remain overlooked. This is partly because women have low bargaining power as they participate and engage less in policy, planning, programming and decision-making by national departments, municipalities, recycling companies or other employers.

The government developed its 3R strategy (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) in 2010 and mentioned ‘gender transformative approaches’). However, when it comes to implementation, women’s issues have hardly been addressed at all; neither by national departments, development partners, cites and municipalities or NGOs working in the sector. There has been extremely weak or no co-ordination between organisations involved in women’s rights or labour rights, and the waste management sector. We are hopeful that the recently formed National Task Force might take up these issues and promote better co-ordination. It is being headed by the Additional Secretary, Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives (MLGRD&C).

Practical Action’s work in solid waste management: a new commitment to addressing gender inequalities

Practical Action has been involved for more than a decade in designing and piloting integrated sustainable waste management scheme in different municipalities of Bangladesh, helping to extend waste services to urban poor communities. Recently we have committed ourselves to doing more to recognise and address gender inequalities.

Our work takes a systemic approach looking right across the chain from waste generation, separation at household level, up to its collection, transportation and disposal or recycling/re-use. We work with the existing informal sector, both women and men, to help them establish themselves as entrepreneurs, and have a formal space to engage with municipalities. We also support them to improve their relationships with larger recycling companies. We have often done this through performance-based service-level agreements between waste co-operatives and municipalities.

To get to this point requires a lot of work: assessing the current informal system and presenting the untold stories to municipalities to help them see the financial and service opportunity better engagement offers. Specialized facilitation and soft skills together with convincing facts encourages the municipalities to extend cooperation towards engagement and partnership with business cooperatives of informal workers.

Informal workers are organised, mobilized and supported to form business organizations where women’s participation is strongly considered both in numbers and positions in the committees. A few cooperatives are exclusively for women who are mostly street sweepers and particularly vulnerable in various ways. Entrepreneurial skills are well taken care of so that members of the cooperatives independently can assess local markets and based on that they can improve their businesses.

Education and exposure to appropriate technologies are organised specially for women which can significantly reduce physical labor and improve working conditions. Occupational health, hygiene and safety education and knowledge is provided together with on job work and follow up continues until this becomes established practice and habits.

Practical Action supports municipalities to set up multi stakeholder platforms including representatives from women cooperatives, urban poor communities, NGOs/CSOs, private recycling companies, business organisations and other government organisations for inclusive and integrated waste management planning. Through these platforms, informal workers can advocate for increased annual allocations from municipal budgets, better health and safety provision, and to access a share of the budget allocated to gender concerns. The participation and engagement of women is emphasized in leading campaigns and movements for awareness raising, behavior and practice changes towards safe disposal of wastes.

Private sector partnerships are encouraged to bring new investment and business skill in establishing treatment plants to recycle organic waste into fertilizer and biogas which creates green jobs and employments (mostly for women) in sorting/separation, processing, quality inspection and packaging, supply and distribution in local and national markets. We are also discussing with Bangladesh Bank and their partners who operate green and other subsidized financial schemes to extend loans to women led entrepreneurs for running the business of waste collection and recycling.

Taking our learning to key decision-makers

There are few organisations in Bangladesh who are considering gender inequalities in waste management. Whatever we are learning on the ground, will be captured and shared with key national departments (Local Government Engineering Department -LGED, Sustainable Renewable Energy Development Authority – SREDA, Department of Environment – DoE, Department of Public Health Engineering – DPHE) for inclusion in national 3R, WASH and municipal development programmes.

Our initial learning was recently shared in a parallel event at the UN CSW63 conference titled Dignifying lives and empowering women in waste management together with International Labour Oroganisation – ILO and Women in Informal Employments – Globalising and Organising- WIEGO who also work and speak globally for social and economic empowerment of informal women and men waste workers to realise decent jobs and secure their work rights.

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