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Waste & Gender: Rethinking Relations for Empowerment in Brazil

For many people in developing countries, especially those with limited education or opportunity, waste picking offers a means of making a living. It offers a livelihood for (usually) very poor people who may not have other job opportunities. A significant number are women and some are children. However, in Brazil, close to two-thirds of waste pickers are men. Although research has indicated that within waste picker organizations and cooperatives, women make up the majority of members (56%), issues of gender discrimination and subordination still persist for women both at home, at work and within their waste picker networks and movements.

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“In most of the world – even in countries that prohibit gender discrimination in the workplace – women are denied equal participation and opportunities to participate in public life in a just and dignified way,” said Marlise Matos, professor and coordinator of NEPEM. “A significant part of this negation involves many forms of violence as well as frequent rights violations. Black, low-income, and illiterate women – and/or women who work informally – experience these violations even more severely.” Research has shown that women waste pickers in Brazil represent 56% of the membership in waste picker organizations, cooperatives and associations. However, there is a lack of understanding on the gender dynamics and sexual division of labor involved in waste picking activities and the discrimination women waste pickers face.

About the project:

The Gender and Waste: Rethinking Gender Relations project was launched as a participatory process in 2013 in four regions in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil (Belo Horizonte, Estrada Real, Catavales, and Itaúna). It is a joint project with WIEGO, the MNCR (National Waste Picker's Movement in Brazil), Women’s Studies Research Group (NEPEM) at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), NGO INSEA and ANCAT which seeks to understand the multiple levels of discrimination that women waste pickers face in the home, in the workplace, and as leaders in their networks and movements. The project also aims to map the needs – such as professional and educational qualifications – of women waste pickers so that they can be economically and politically empowered.

Based on a participatory planning process involving research on gender and waste pickers and discussions and interviews with women leaders of the waste picker movement in Brazil and Latin America, the following issues were highlighted by participants:
  • The publication and dissemination of life stories of women who have recovered from abuse situations or other types of discrimination, to show other women that there is a way out.
  • Women waste pickers would like to have access to assistance from specialists – perhaps from universities and organizations – and to psychologists, lawyers and other professionals who can help them overcome concrete problems.
  • Women waste pickers need to learn public speaking to affirm themselves as leaders.
  • The issue of childcare is very important, and must be addressed.
  • Literacy classes and the need for trainings about how to operate worker-owned cooperatives. They mentioned the effect of drugs, violence and alcoholism on their self-esteem, which in turns effects their ability to serve as leaders.
One-day workshops were then conducted to identify the problems and impediments participants faced with regards to their empowerment as women and leaders and to understand the multiple levels of discrimination that women waste pickers faced in the home, in the workplace, and as leaders in their networks and movements.

Issues raised at workshops

In relation to women's safety and empowerment, some of the main issues and observations from the workshops included:
  • Women recalled suffering from violence and discrimination. Nevertheless, women emphasized they are no longer “poor little creatures” from the past. According to the participants, women’s voices are growing stronger and there are various stories of struggles and of women overcoming such problems.
  • Participants expressed their desire to have greater access to information and education. Ultimately, they emphasized they want to learn more. Some specific abilities were mentioned such as: learning how to read and write; computer skills; learning how to speak in public; a course or training on politics.
  • Cooperatives were considered as spaces that protect them, almost as a shelter that helps women confront domestic violence. Yet there were still discussions in which the participants expressed how it was necessary to have more space within the national movement for women so that they could occupy higher positions in the movement. 

Hope for the future

"This project is very important for us women waste pickers because it has trained us to exercise our autonomy," said Madalena Duarte, a waste picker leader with the National Brazilian Movement (MNCR) based in Minas Gerais. "As women waste pickers, we play a very important role in society. Together we can go much further. With organization, dialogue, and understanding, we can multiply our impact, exercise what we've learned in our associations, and train new women leaders."

Lessons learned

Experiences from the initial stages of the Waste and Gender project allows us to reflect on the role of cooperatives and associations in promoting women's safety and empowerment. It highlights the need for a long-term, participatory process of education and training on gender relations in the waste picker sector.

How can waste picker cooperatives, organizations and associations be further leveraged to promote safer spaces for women, especially in the private sphere? What further partnerships can be formed between waste pickers and educational institutions in order to further support the training and education of women waste picker leaders? What conditions are necessary to empower waste picker women to occupy higher positions within their organizations and movements?

A description of the progress to date on the Waste and Gender project can be found here.

1 comment

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Photo of Meena Kadri

Loads of great insights here, Kendra – we're loving that you're sharing on this challenge! I like your highlight that women will be empowered through gaining confidence in public speaking + enhanced literacy. Avenues for empowerment is a big theme for this challenge.

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