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Gender and Urban Waste Management

Maria Muller and Anne Schienberg


Urban waste management is drawing increasing attention, as citizens observe that too much garbage is lying uncollected in the streets, causing inconvenience and environmental pollution, and being a risk for public health. Although government authorities apply all the means at their disposal, the piles of wastes only seem to grow from day to day. In an era of shrinking municipal budgets and a restriction of the scope of municipal government jurisdiction, the problem is likely to intensify unless alternate approaches can be developed.

Increasingly, the private formal sector is seen as a key participant in the full range of urban waste management activities, including collection, transportation, treatment, processing, separate collection, recycling, composting, and disposal of waste. Neighbourhood associations, communities, and small, informal enterprises are increasingly involving themselves in the management of household and business wastes -- often with the encouragement of NGOs and development support organisations Ewith the explicit aim of creating livelihoods and maintaining a clean and healthy living environment. The Urban Waste Expertise Programme (UWEP) of WASTE in Gouda, the Netherlands, was created to document the existing waste practices of people, community organisations and informal enterprises in low-income urban neighbourhoods, and to support new initiatives in this field.

Gender enters the UWEP project perspective from a number of points of view. First, the very definitions of waste and discarded materials may be influenced by the gender of the person making the judgement. What looks like “junkEto women may be motorcycle parts to men; what looks like “dirtEto men may be compost or fertilizer to women; the examples are legion of different sexes “seeingEthings differently.

Second, UWEP program experience shows that as men and women participate (or not) in managing waste within the household, their relationship to discarded materials may depend on who they are, as much as or more than on what they do. In particular, the frequently subordinate status of women may affect their general access to and control of resources, so that the “wasteEmaterials or waste related activities may be the only ones which are available to them. New schemes for managing these materials which are blind to women’s activities may destroy fragile livelihoods. These activities might concern buying and selling household garbage, re-using and recycling waste materials, collecting and disposing of human and solid wastes in a safe manner, and keeping the streets clean.

Third, men and women may differ in their attitudes towards public health and community cleanliness, and have markedly different preferences for how to address public health and environmental problems. These differences, at the most local level, affect the type of services women and men would like to see developed in their communities, how much they are willing tom pay for these services, and who is responsible for finding the money to pay from within their part of the family budget. Such differences may also carry through to preferences for policies, technologies, or approaches which affect decisions made by women and men leaders, entrepreneurs, managers, and public authorities that affect communities, regions, companies, or municipalities.

Finally, a gender-sensitive project approach and a clear commitment to gender equity and the empowerment of women are critical in the support of new initiatives in urban services and environmental protection; attention to gender can increase project effectiveness, avoid costly mistakes, and ensure equitable access to livelihoods, resources or benefits which the project makes available.

This paper is based on the results of a number of UWEP case studies. Although these case studies concern a variety of waste activities, it was possible to discern distinctions as to the involvement of women and men. First the paper introduces the concept of gender in development and goes on to discuss the gender dimension in waste management (3). The observation is then made that gender differences and other social inequalities are maintained through the operation of similar social mechanisms. Finally, the paper gives recommendations for strategies to support the inclusion of both women and men in waste management activities and to reduce social inequalities.

Gender and Development

It is now widely accepted that incorporating gender perspectives in development efforts is necessary for the successful implementation of development programs. The focus on gender rather than women makes it critical to look not only at the category 'women' but at women in relation to men. Gender concerns the way in which relations between women and men are socially constructed. Men and women play different roles in society, with their gender differences shaped by ideological, historical, religious, ethnic, economic and cultural determinants (Moser, 1993). The ultimate objective of incorporating a gender perspective in development programs is to promote the equality of women and men in society, and to empower women to become protagonists in their own development.

It is necessary to translate knowledge on the all-persuasive effects of gender into a new sector, urban waste management. As in other sectors, e.g. provision of water supply, housing improvement, the implications of gender must be "translated" in terms of actual operations of the specific sector.

Such "translated" information may assist environmental NGOs and development cooperation organisations to understand the social and gender implications of their environmental work, as well as to assist Gender and Development NGOs and scholars to apply their ideas to waste issues in urban communities. At present, there is a lack of common understanding between the NGOs, local authorities and professionals in these two broad fields, because the cross-cutting concerns of gender and waste management are only beginning to be elaborated, and few studies exist to-date on the interactions between them.

Gender Interest: Earning Income

Women have several roles in the household, such as earning income and saving on expenditure, caring for members of the family and doing the domestic chores. In this regard, waste handling is an important source of income especially for the poorer women (Huysman, 1994). In comparison to men, women are mainly engaged in activities requiring lower levels of education and skills (waste picking from dump sites; sorting and washing, rather than working at machines) and a more limited range of physical activity (collection, rather than transportation). They also earn less than men, being more vulnerable to exploitation by employers, contractors, and waste dealers and intermediaries. Further, women do not have the range of social-cum-business contacts over a wide area of the city that men often have, and which give access to personal credit and favourable market opportunities.

Although women are widely active in waste picking and salvaging, micro-enterprises in the waste sector seem to be more often initiated, operated and managed by men, although there are examples of all-women's enterprises or cooperatives. Several forces are likely to be at work here. First, since waste handling offers significant income opportunities (in Latin America, most workers involved in waste management and recycling micro-enterprises earn at least double the monthly minimum wage (IPES)), the field is subject to the prevailing forces of competition and of inequality in a society. Secondly, when the initiative is taken by a group of women, they tend to involve or employ other women (UWEP). The same happens when e.g. groups are formed for the purpose of acquiring and managing micro-loans. The same applies to men's enterprises.

Cultural barriers

When engaged as waste collection labourers, women are reliable workers. As income opportunities for illiterate women are scarce, they are prepared to overcome the barriers of distance (a 4 hours' walk to and from work at the neighbourhood designated for waste collection) or of culture (work in the male world of the harbour) (UWEP). In certain cases, women who see their general economic opportunities as being severely constrained may make a greater effort and a longer-term commitment to waste-related work, as compared to men, who will leave at the earliest opportunity to move to higher-status occupations (IPES).

Women as waste workers face a cultural bias in several ways. Both men and women waste workers face the disrespect and outright scorn of fellow-citizens, as handling untreated waste materials is considered demeaning. In addition, women who are cleaning public places, such as streets or bus stations, are often insulted or harassed. Working in remote sites like waste dumps or factory sites, they may be assaulted. And if women who earn their own income with garbage collection transfer their new-found self-confidence and financial autonomy into an attempt to assert themselves within the family, e.g. by claiming the right to spend their money as they see fit, they may find themselves the victims of domestic abuse or the focus of social conflict. Women may then have to learn (with the help of a supporting NGO) to become more "polite" in their assertiveness (UWEP).

Employment policies

Employment policies may have a negative effect on women. For example, in some cities women form the majority of workers in informal services to collect human excreta. At a certain point in the development of a city, it can come to be in the interest of overall urban waste management to integrate informal sector services into the formal sector through direct employment of waste labourers, or through sub- contracting to small enterprises. But when a municipal department decides to place the excreta collection workers on the municipal payroll, somehow 70% of these employees turn out to be men (Gupta, 1998). Similar mechanisms may be in operation when small enterprises obtain municipal sub-contracts in the waste sector. In that case, competition for employment in these enterprises may intensify, as they offer greater stability of income, forcing women out.

Gender Interest: A Clean and Healthy Living Environment

Irrespective of the status of women outside of the household, within the home women are widely accepted as the caregivers, food preparers, and maintainers of the domestic environment. In most societies, this role carries over to an accepted role for women in community maintenance, often focusing there as well on cleanliness, health, and order.

Therefore, any attempt to improve community urban services must logically take special care to consult women, who are almost certainly the ones most affected by changes or “improvementsE Taking household garbage to street corner dust bins may be easy, but it is not so easy when the distance between house and dustbin is too large. It is natural that children fall ill, the burden of caring for sick children who have been exposed to human fecal matter or vermin and disease in uncollected garbage falls disproportionately on the mothers, sisters, and grandmothers of those children.

Environmental Monitoring

The combination of her acknowledged role in community maintenance and her tendency to stay at home in the community while their men go out to work on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, makes a woman the logical choice for community environmental monitoring and environmental and health education. As the main socializer of her children, she is also a logical choice to serve as an agent of change in waste- related behaviour. Given the opportunity and resources, women are effective as resident monitors of environmental cleanliness. They can do this by walking regular rounds in the immediate neighbourhood to check whether the waste collection services have done their work well and properly. Women, as immediate neighbours, may also encourage each other to maintain cleanliness around the house and in the street, or to pay for waste collection. They may begin to see this as a shared concern through participation in a program of dialogue- oriented environmental health education (UWEP).

Participation in Public Meetings and Committees

Public gatherings and committee meetings at the neighborhood, community, ward and city level are often the means of consulting the community about development priorities, and are increasingly a key ingredient in setting urban development agendas. In an era of increasing pressure on municipalities for cost recovery and fiscal discipline, such consultations also are likely to be seen as a means of securing a public commitment to pay for the services. Here too, gender considerations are important, as women and men may differ in their priorities for new or improved services, preferences for type of service, and willingness and ability to pay installation costs and operating fees.

Several elements are at play when a community is consulted about waste services. The first is that women and men are likely to have different interests regarding environmental improvement, based on the different use they make of the immediate environment. The second is the nature of the consultation process itself. This concerns, among other things, the composition of the committees that takes decisions, and the forms of representation between the lower level and the higher level committees, the ways in which the negotiation with the city is structured, and the time and setting of the meetings, which may define the environment as “men’sEspace, an environment in which women are not comfortable or free to express their opinions.

The experience of the UWEP program, as well as other development projects, would indicate that women are most active at neighborhood or street level committees, which are closest to their household management role. Participation of women can be seen at the higher levels of community, ward, or city-level meetings, sometimes even as leaders, it is much less frequent; the numbers of women decline as the distance from the community and the formality of the setting increases. This means that while women may feel free to express their opinions at the local level, these preferences and priorities may get lost in the negotiation process, and the actual projects may reflect women’s concerns imperfectly, if at all.

In one community-based project initiated by the municipality, the "community" was given the opportunity to make a choice between two types of waste collection service, either a public garbage container at street corners where residents should bring their garbage, at a low price; or waste collection from door-to-door at a higher price. The "community" preferred the latter, but the composition of that “community voiceEwas not considered. No information is available on the considerations leading up to this preference and whether they differed between different social groups. Considerations could have been: the distance between house and garbage container; which household member is responsible for taking out the garbage; and which member of the household is able and willing to pay for the collection service.

In another community, where undrained storm water caused great problems, the highest-level neighbourhood committee was given the choice between two types of drainage system, a sophisticated one, which would take 3 years before being operational; or a simple one, to be operational before the next rain season (4). The neighbourhood committee chose the sophisticated one, while the women, who were not represented, would have preferred the one which would alleviate their environmental problems immediately.

In one case it was even reported that women had in the past been members of the highest-level neighbourhood waste management committee, but had all stopped their participation at one time "because they were too busy with earning money for their children to waste time on meetings" (5). One wonders what the real reason behind such a move was.

It was observed in several cities that women- only meetings tend to take longer than mixed meetings or those with only men. One explanation offered by NGO staff is that women take meetings as a social opportunity to talk about the family, their children, their domestic problems etc. Another possible explanation is that women continue a discussion until a high degree of consensus is reached, while men are less concerned about consensus, and so will settle an issue by voting or letting the loudest voices prevail. A third possibility is that women have less experience in meetings, and a more limited exposure to process skills and rules of interaction in public spaces, so it takes more time for them to reach agreement.

Community consultation also concerns the degree to which a process of empowerment takes place among the community groups. Do men and women, and members of different social groups, have equal opportunity to understand the issues involved, to express their opinions and influence the outcomes? Simple but crucial decisions in this respect might concern the choice of meeting place and meeting time, language used, and division of representative tasks, such as negotiating with the local authorities. Another factor is the credibility of spokespeople from different groups: if a women seeks to present the opinions of a large group of women, is she ridiculed or disregarded simply because she is a women, especially if the opinion is contradictory to that held by the majority of men? It is the task of NGOs and development support organisations to ensure that the different participants have the opportunity to participate in an equitable manner, and that the means used to arrive at a decision adequately acknowledge that even the definition of “participationEneeds to take gender into account.

Gender and Technology

When introducing new technology for sanitation, waste collection, disposal, or recycling, gender-related questions are critical to project success. For example, can women-owned enterprises as well as men-owned enterprises afford the higher investment? Are women-owned enterprises able to generate a higher work volume to pay for this, to the same extent as men- owned or mixed enterprises? Do women too have the managerial expertise required for a greater volume of work? Do women as well as men have equal access to the necessary training? Can women as well as men continue with related income earning activities, such as sorting the waste? How does the new technology affect the health of women and that of men? Does it create equal risks or offer equal protection against health risks? Leaving such issues to the existing forces of competition and inequality in a society will tend to reinforce, or even increase, women’s socio-economic disadvantage. That is the lesson from the development of small enterprises in other parts of economic life. Here lies a task for NGOs and committed professionals, to design gender- specific programs supporting the introduction of new waste technology.

Waste and health

Gender specific health risks of working with waste materials are not yet documented, but can be inferred. Data are available showing that people who have physical contact with human excreta or other raw waste materials contract diseases like hepatitis and diarrhoea and suffer eye and skin infections more frequently than people not so employed. The gender division of labour, therefore, will strongly influence men’s and women’s differential exposure to specific health risks, and how this affects the workers' children.

A Gendered Definition of Waste

It has been stated above that women and men play different roles in society, and that each has a gender-specific combination of roles, shaped by a host of determinants (cultural, economic etc.). Consequently, decisions taken by an individual are the result of balancing the combination of roles and expectations.

The word "waste" refers to something that is "no longer serving a purpose", something "without value" (The Concise Oxford Dictionary). Obviously, however, certain people in certain circumstances consider waste materials as a resource for their family, their livelihood, or their enterprise. So- called waste materials may serve as a crucial resource within households. For example, oily milk packages may be used as fuel; leftover food may be fed to pigs and goats; discarded cardboard may serve as walls and roofs of houses. If that is the case, one can expect that men and women re-value waste materials differently and see their usefulness for different purposes, such as domestic utility, saving on household expenditures, earning money, or other purposes. In short, there is a gendered definition of "waste" and of "resources", which must be reflected during any discussion of priorities regarding waste management in the community consultation process.

Similar issues are at stake in the field of gender and the rural environment (Guijt, 1994). Adjusted to the urban setting, the key questions are: - What natural and social resources are important in local livelihoods? - Who uses which resources? - Who controls decisions about how resources are used? - Who is helping to sustain local resources and who benefits from this? - How is the situation changing? Answers to these questions must be sought through participatory research in the very beginning of waste management projects.

Social Inequalities

Apart from gender, there are other factors too which cause particular groups of people to be in a disadvantaged position in society (Coady, n.d.). Such factors include age, membership in a specific social group, religion, profession, caste, or ethnic minority. Restricted access to education, or lack of ownership rights, are also factors potentially causing the exclusion of certain social groups from participation in development. Such groups are in a disadvantaged position, in the sense of being excluded from benefiting from development opportunities, or even becoming the victims of development when (unintended) side effects of projects force their groups into even deeper poverty. Chances for social advancement through using new technology for waste recycling, for example, may selectively benefit only those people who are in a favourable position, for example, those belonging to the "right" social group, or living in the "good" part of town.

Similar forces are at work to reinforce the disadvantaged position of women and other groups of people such as:

  • the play of prevailing forces of competition and inequality
  • being left outside the consultation and decision making process in the community
  • having no access to the capital required for new technology
  • having no access to information and training
  • living in inaccessible places
Social groups may be caught in a vicious circle which can either be deepened or broken by outside intervention. Project strategies can affect this circle.

The Role of NGOs and Development Support Organisations

The role of NGOs is important in supporting women and other social minorities to ensure tat all benefit equally from environmental improvement activities. Case studies showed that NGOs are able to support the development or expansion of an enterprise, and at the same time ensure that women get the same opportunities as men to participate in the improved enterprise. Similarly, the information-gathering, consultation and planning process as related to waste activities can be organised to facilitate the full and equal participation of women and other social minorities. A variety of strategies may have to be applied concurrently.

NGOs who address gender inequalities usually have committed female staff members, whom they support with appropriate means and strategies. The committed female staff themselves have contacts with the national and international women's movement.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The implications of "gender" in waste management are not well known. But going by the lessons from micro-enterprise development, environment and rural development, urban neighbourhood improvement, certain consequences can be expected. Therefore,

- The staff of support and development organisations should become aware of possible implications through training programs. This training should incorporate country-specific conditions.
- A gender perspective should be integrated in assessment studies, planning, implementation and monitoring of waste management projects. This should include a gender-specific analysis of how available waste and resources are valued and used.

New technology has an effect on the chain of waste management activities beyond the specific activity for which equipment is designed. Technology is also of social and economic importance to women, men, and their households. Therefore, - Organisations and experts should take the assignment to design new equipment as the beginning of a process of consultation with the "community" (defined as women and men, and, when necessary, “consultedEin single sex groupings), and owners/workers of small enterprises. This should lead to flexible implementation. - Technical training may have to use a combination of approaches in order to reach both women and men.

It has been observed that enterprises and improvement projects which give a definite place to both women and men, are often supported by NGOs. Therefore, - The (female) staff of support organisations and local authorities should be enabled to strengthen their gender commitment through national and international contacts, project experience and training. - Gender consciousness and commitment to the promotion of gender equality in waste management is an important criterion in choosing partner organisations and local experts.

Agencies aiming at waste management that contributes to the reduction of social inequalities and the improvement of environmental performance should: - Identify the different groups in the affected communities, and invite these groups to participate in a process to analyse the distinguishing factors that maintain their relatively disadvantaged position. - In consultation with these groups, jointly develop approaches to address these basic factors to enable the disadvantaged social groups to benefit from new opportunities in waste management. - Prepare project approaches that address these basic factors in combination with specific waste management requirements.


  1. Earlier versions of this paper have been presented at the Programme Policy Meeting of the Urban Waste Expertise Programme, organised by WASTE in Gouda, the Netherlands in 1997; and at the Gender, Technology and Development Conference, organised by TOOL/TOOLCONSULT in Amsterdam, 1997.

  2. Maria S. Muller is a sociologist working at WASTE, Advisers on Urban Environment and Development, in Gouda, the Netherlands. Anne Scheinberg is an associate of WASTE, and is currently a Fulbright Scholar studying the privatisation of municipal waste management in Hungary and Bulgaria.

  3. Contributions to this paper from Usha P. Raghupathi, Associate Professor at the National Institute of Urban Affairs New Delhi, are gratefully acknowledged.

  4. Personal communication from Betty Kwagala, Makerere Institute of Social Research, Kampala, Uganda. 5. Personal communication from CPAC, Bamako, Mali.


Coady International Institute. (n.d.) A Handbook for Social/Gender Analysis, Canada.

Editorial. (1996) 'City Inequality', Special Issue, Environment and Urbanization 8 (2).

Guijt, Irene. (1994) "Questions of Difference: PRA, Gender and the Environment', Training Manual, IIED, London.

Gupta, K.N. (1998) 'Excreta Collection in Ghaziabad, India', in Muller, Maria S.(ed.), The Collection of Household Excreta in Urban Low-income Settlements, WASTE/ENSIC, Gouda/Bangkok, 1998

Huysman, Marijk. (1994) `Waste Picking as a Survival Strategy for Women in Indian Cities', Environment and Urbanization 6 (2).

Moser, O.N. Caroline. (1993) Gender Planning and Development: Theory, Practice and Training, Routledge, London.

Muller, Maria S. (1998) The Collection of Household Excreta in Urban Low-income Settlements, WASTE/ENSIC, Gouda/Bangkok, 1998.

Ostergaard, Lise (ed.). (1992) Gender and Development : A Practical Guide, Routledge, London.

UWEP (Urban Waste Expertise Programme). (1995-1997) Case studies on community participation and small/micro enterprises in waste management. These case studies have been carried out in Africa, Asia and Latin America and are being prepared for publication by WASTE. Kind regards,

Arroyo, Moreno, Jorge, Francisco Rivas Rios, and Inge Lardinois: La gestion de residuous solidos en America Latina; El caso de las pequenas y microempresas y cooperativas. UWEP, Urban Waste Series # 5, Lima, 1997. (Referred to in the text as “IPESE

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