Women in Leadership in Waste Management Sector: Status and Challenges

Nepal has pledged to ensure women's participation in policy-making and decision-making processes at all levels of the state by signing the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women 1979, the Beijing Declaration and Strategy 1995 and the Sustainable Development Goals 2015. The Constitution of Nepal, 2015 includes various provisions for the economic, social and political empowerment of women and accordingly laws, policies and regulations have been formulated.


Similarly, there are provisions of positive discrimination for women in education, health, employment and social security. The Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens (at the central/federal level) the Ministry of Social Development (at the provincial level) work for implementation of policies and plans. Similarly, at the local rural and urban municipal level, separate department for women and children development program are arranged. In this way, various efforts have been made for the economic and social development of women from all three levels of the government.


Aadditionally,  the Civil Service Amendment Act 2014 has provided a quota of 45% for women and socially excluded groups and of 45% reservations, 33% should be women. There is also a provision that 40% of elected representatives at the local level should be women and 20% should be Dalit women. Similarly, it is mandated 33% of all elected representatives be women at the federal and provincial levels and provided additional representation quotas for other socially excluded groups.


Taking an example of women leadership in formal sector, 41% women representatives were elected at the local level recently. Furthermore, women have been elected to 32.7% of seats in the House of Representatives and 37.3% of seats in the National Assembly, 34% of seats in the Provincial Assembly and 33.5% of the Federal Parliament. The election in 2017 can be considered as a historic milestone in promoting gender equality and social inclusion in Nepali politics.


However, examining the statistics of the local level elections, it can be concluded that there is an unequal participation on the basis of gender. The presence of women in the post of deputy chief was 92.96% and in sharp contrast, negligible proportion (2.39%) was elected for chief post. According to a study on women in business undertaken by Central Buraue of Statistics (CBS) female managers make up 29.6% compared to 70.3% of male managers. A key indicator of progress in women's economic empowerment is active labor force participation; while the total wage and salary earners were 8.3% in 2010, it has increased to 12.1% by 2019, indicating that women's earnings are lower than men's.


Similarly, according to Nepal Rastra Bank's Financial Access Report 2021, the number of male account holders in banks is two to one more than female account holders. Furthermore, a World Bank report in 2020 revealed that businesses were registered in women's names due to government subsidies to banks and other financial institutions.


Nepal has witnessed several transformational changes which have improved the socio-economic status of women, however, the inequality and gender gap in leadership in formal sectors of economy is clearly vivid.


Women leadership in formal and informal sectors of solid waste management
According to the International Labor Organization, there are between 10,000 and 15,000 waste workers in the Kathmandu Valley alone, of which women play an important role. A baseline survey conducted by the National Statistics Office in 2019-20 covering 271 municipalities mentions that only 20% of female employees are in waste management and also there is a dominance of female employees as sweepers, helpers and other lower levels.


Overall, women are found active in waste segregation and informal waste recycling. Employers generally prefer men in roles such as collecting, loading and packing recyclable materials, and women are generally employed in repetitive and time-consuming tasks.  It can be generalized that division of labor based on traditional gender roles and stereotypes dominates waste management as in other sectors.


Women in Waste (WOW)’s global online survey titled “Mapping the status of women in the global waste management sector” states that across the world, young, beginner to professional, established and highly experienced women are entering the field at various stages of their careers. According to the same report, about 12.5% of respondents worked in landfill management; 51.6% was working on waste prevention, repair, renovation and reuse. It shows a positive change in women’s contribution in waste management. However, respondents involved in this study were found to be from more developed countries. In other words, there were fewer respondents in underdeveloped countries where waste management is associated with the informal sector.


Over the past few decades, cooperatives, advocacy and initiatives that focus on gender in waste management within the informal sector have proliferated and many of these are run by workers directly involved in waste management for an instance, a cooperative organization of self-employed waste pickers; Solid Waste Collection and Handling (SWaCH) in Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad in India.


In terms of Nepal, Women Environment and Preservation Committee (WEPCO), Avni Venture, Khali Shishi, Hati Hati, Samyuka Safai Jagaran, Doko Recylers, Revive Upcycle Nepal, Batarwarniya Sundar Nepal, Baneshwor Mahila Batarawaniya Sewa, Clean Up Nepal are few examples of ventures operated by women leadership. WEPCO was established in 90s by local housemakers in Kupondole Lalitpur which now works various locations of Lalitpur in Kathmandu in waste management. Avni Ventures has been imitated by Silsila Acharya after completion of higher studies in Norway which also provides employment to hundreds at the “Fine Processing Sites” for the past 10 years.  Apart from that, there are 400 workers who are directly connected with them who are mostly women. Acharya says, "The presence of women in decision-making roles in formal waste management is low". Samyukta Safai Jagaran is the first non-profit organization established by workers for workers in the waste management sector; which mean all board members and staff are people involved in the waste management sector. These inspiring examples are just few.


Women minority in decisive roles
Women are in a minority among the people who make decisions and take leadership in sectors like waste management, water sanitation and hygiene policies and strategies, sanitation project management, tariff setting and technology selection, or selecting sanitation facilities and services at the household level. Women are absent from the major decision-making areas.


Various studies reveal that the reasons behind women minority in leadership decisive roles can be attributed to the challenges such as: women’s limited access to education, skill development, training, financial resources and opportunities; inadequate access to funding and resources for women-led businesses; no mentorship opportunities and networks for women; stereotyped perceptions of women's abilities and attributes; unequal distribution of domestic and care works; fewer women in male-dominated industries; inherent biases in performance appraisals and promotions, and cultural and social pressures to prioritize family over career.  Another major challenge in the context of Nepal is the non-availability of gender-disaggregated data or information in any systematic manner especially in the waste management sector.


Due to various reasons such as to support family’s economy, to make use of education, to become independent, etc., women were and are in formal and informal sector of employment. Despite, it is the women who do three time more unpaid care giving and domestic works than men in families. A clear disparity exists in the context of developing countries because women have limited access to time-saving infrastructure and public services. Caring work is still largely on women's shoulders and many household chores and activities that are said to be done by women are arduous, yet not included as economic. Informal workers who work for low and unstable wages in waste management has low bargaining power; are in a risky situation compared to workers involved in the formal sector. Women more vulnerable in terms of occupational health and safety just because they are women.


If we look at the presence of women in government bodies and public organizations, it is worth mentioning that there are only very few women representatives in leadership and decisive positions. Leadership is not about women participating in token positions to fulfill government mandates (33%). Women's participation in decision-making roles in waste management is about using women's unique perspectives and skills for gender equality, environmental management and sustainable development. It is important to note that women's participation in processing and recycling factories is also irregular and mainly engaged as daily wage labourers.


Concept of Intersectionality
The interrelationship between gender and caste is particularly important in Nepal mainly because there are more than 80 ethnic groups in Nepal, each has its own customs, rules, responsibilities, traditions, language, ethics and values. The concept of intersectionality means that every person has many layers of identity. Each layer is associated with a negative or positive characteristics. This means that access to the power and resources of the individual within the respective society is blocked or opened. Gender-related disparities are more prevalent for women belonging to tribal and Dalit groups.


The interrelationship of issues such as collective action and leadership, employment i.e., regularly paid jobs, training related to education and skill development, expanding access to property and financial services, social security and respect for non-earning household chores should be addressed. Particular attention needs to be paid to the interrelationship between paid care work, the informal sector and waste management.


Equal opportunities and recognition are needed for both men and women to advance the proper waste management sector. Gender quotas, affirmative action or training opportunities in jobs with the greatest inequality, such as entrepreneurship, administration, finance, business, engineering, truck driving, etc., can increase women's representation and reduce the imbalance to some extent. After bringing women into leadership, it is equally important to support them. Men also need help. Also, good investment is needed in ways to move forward, ways to be educated and skilled. Skills related to office management, communication, team work, feedback, planning and implementation is required. For this, coordination, cooperation and partnership between the public and private sectors is strongly recommended.