The Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) Implementing Sustainable Low and Non-Chemical Development in SIDS (ISLANDS) Programme hosted a webinar on women’s leadership in chemicals and waste management in small island developing States (SIDS). The webinar aimed to facilitate knowledge exchange by showcasing women-led and gender-just solutions in SIDS’ chemicals and waste management from the grassroots to the national and international levels in policy, practice, and entrepreneurship.

It also aimed to raise awareness and understanding on the existing knowledge and gaps in gender and chemicals and waste.  

Margaux Granat, Gender Specialist, ISLANDS, moderated the event. She said SDG 5 (gender equality) must be achieved for the other SDGs to be realized.

Melanie Ashton, Project Coordinator and Private Sector Engagement Specialist, GEF ISLANDS, introduced the Programme, noting it includes 33 SIDS and helps them safely manage chemicals and hazardous waste. She said it connects and facilitates SIDS-SIDS learning across and between project regions while developing innovative approaches to community engagement and working with the private sector, and supports implementation of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS Conventions) and the Minamata Convention on Mercury. Ashton highlighted a gender action plan in the Caribbean and the Pacific, a workshop in Fiji that resulted in participants requesting more gender training, and mining companies in Papua New Guinea training women as heavy vehicle drivers.

Anna Holthous, Project Coordinator, Gender and Chemicals, MSP Institute – Multi-Stakeholder Processes for Sustainable Development, said her work focuses on gender equality at the international policy level. She emphasized interlinkages between gender and chemicals, integration of gender in the chemicals and pollution policy fields, and the biological, social, and transformational dimensions of gender.

Regarding biological aspects, she noted differences in how chemicals affect men’s and women’s bodies. She highlighted hormone levels, pregnancy, breast feeding, and menopause, lamenting biological differences have not been sufficiently researched. With respect to social aspects, she mentioned differing societal roles of men and women and the different chemicals to which they are exposed. For example, she said more men work in construction and are, therefore, exposed to chemicals in building materials, while women are exposed to more cleaning products, are more affected by indoor pollution than men. She called for more research and attention to safety.

Holthous said the inclusion of a gender perspective for societal transformation is also critical as it helps us better understand the unsustainable production and consumption of chemicals. She explained that gender inequalities lead to unsustainable and unhealthy handling of chemicals. For instance, with respect to personal protective equipment (PPE), she said women are less likely to be able to afford it or find the right sizes as they are often made for men. Men, on the other hand, sometimes grow up with the perception they must project strength and that PPE makes them look weak. Holthous stressed that thus far, the issue of gender has not been adequately addressed and reflected in chemicals management. She said in cases where gender is integrated, the focus is often on the vulnerability of women, while only 2% of national implementation plans refer to women as agents of change in chemicals management.

Keima Gardiner, Waste Management Specialist, Ministry of Planning and Development, Trinidad and Tobago, and President of the 11th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Stockholm Convention, outlined the BRS Gender Action Plan, noting that the principles of gender equality are embedded in the work of BRS Secretariats and Conventions. She also highlighted efforts to integrate gender thinking into the work of subsidiary bodies. Gardiner noted the predominance of women in agricultural fields where they outnumber men. She reiterated the gender differences in terms of susceptibility to chemical exposure, as well as different management roles and workplace exposure. Pointing to ethnic dimensions, she said some chemicals are marketed to certain groups, such as lightening creams and hair straightening products to women of color. She called for increasing awareness and the promotion of chemical safety.

Ruth Spencer, Deputy Chair, Marine Ecosystems Protected Areas (MEPA) Trust, Antigua and Barbuda, said women-led groups are being encouraged to be more active in the chemicals and waste space. She said the impacts of chemicals and waste are most easily seen at the local level, where women are often community guardians. She cited management opportunities for women in other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) – a newer biodiversity work area. She said communities must do something about e-waste and chemicals in OECMs, but questioned who they take their ideas to, as government agencies are not well versed in intricacies at the community level, so they cannot help develop OECMs.

Marina Keil, Founder and Director, Samoa Recycling Waste Management Association (SRWMA), discussed her personal transformation from someone who was diverting waste out of Samoa and contributing to the problem to an effective waste manager. Noting her industry has historically been dominated by men, Keil said SRWMA prioritizes hiring women and people with disabilities, such as hearing problems and autism. She highlighted challenges faced by women in the industry, including having a seat at the table and feeling suppressed in meetings.

Tanya Yanuyanurua, Project Officer, Pacific Recycling Foundation (PFR), and Fiji-based youth recycling activist, said her organization focuses on best international recycling practices, strategies for waste pickers, and workshops and trainings.  She called for increased awareness in schools, so waste is sorted and segregated, and for the designation of recycling advocates. She said waste pickers are often stigmatized and, as a youth leader for waste management, advocated for more youth engagement and support. Yanuyanurua noted the name change of informal waste pickers to collection pillars of recycling – a more “empowering” title for those whose main source of income comes from recycling.

In closing, Granat asked each speaker to share what support is needed for women to be more engaged as leaders. Participants called for an encouraging support system, placing people at the center of one’s work, involving more women in managing waste streams, more training to increase capacity, and engaging with religious and traditional leaders.

Participants were invited to join ongoing engagement and collaboration via the Green Forum and the GEF ISLANDS Community of Practice on Gender Equality, which explores initiatives and measures underway on mainstreaming gender-responsive actions and solutions. [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]