Albina Ruiz Rios is Founder and Chairperson of the Healthy City, a social enterprise project focussed on environmental improvements and poverty reduction. She recently presented to the UN Commission on the Status of Women on the “Gender equality and sustainable development” panel.
Equality before exclusion – millions of women and men are struggling together to recycle and provide a decent life for themselves.
The purpose of our participation in the 55th Assembly of the UN Commission on the Status of Women on the panel related to emerging issues in the empowerment of women and sustainable development, is that our organization Healthy City has been working in the last 9 years to contribute to the empowerment and inclusion of men and women excluded and relegated to the last link in the chain of poverty in our countries.
Healthy City is an NGO founded by a group of environmental engineers and professionals in 2002 in Peru. It was formed as an agent of change against a background where garbage accumulates mainly in places where poor people live. The recyclers have to make a living from waste, unprotected and under the indifferent gaze of other people, and where a large segment of the society recognizes that governments are inefficient in providing adequate basic sanitation.
A priority of our work is empowering and improving the living conditions of informal workers, who cannot get the support of municipal governments and are in a situation of economic and political social exclusion. They work in conditions detrimental to their health and with a deplorable income. In most cases, these people work in the streets and in landfills, without physical and health protection, uninsured and permanently exposed to disease, chronic malnutrition, and in many cases even psychological and physical violence.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of our work in many cities of Peru, but also in Latin American countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Central American countries and recently in Bangalore – India, is that both women and men recyclers have been the subject of profound exclusion and marginalization of social life. At the same time, however, we managed to incorporate the social and economic life of many families by getting them to become agents of change, through recycling as an economic and environmental activity.
This group called “recyclers” is at the base of the pyramid and that is unfortunately the weakest actor in the chain of recycling. Among other factors this is due to belonging to the poorest strata of the population. These people are unable to find alternative sources of support. They engage in moonlighting in the dumps, landfills, streets and squares in order to survive, unlike the other links in the chain whose owners receive more and better benefits than the recyclers.
The informal recyclers often wander the streets equipped with a tricycle to pedal or walk carrying a bag with materials salvaged from the trash bags, work with their younger children, wife and dogs, looking to have more hands to increase their resilience .
In fact, we encourage them to become legally associated organizations, which draw up and participate in selective collection programs. This allows them to deal with private firms that dominate commercial markets where the recyclables are sold, represent themselves to local governments that tend to exclude and suppress the streets, and to meet the neighbours who do not want to see them and suspect that the work is done by thieves or kidnappers.
Women make up around a third of these associations. Several of them are leaders in their associations and hopefully will soon take responsibility for driving the fate of their national associations in place of their peers. It should be noted the outstanding work done by women leaders in their various organizations.
The most important benefits achieved by pickers who work in the formalized selective collection programs are that they increase their income by more than 100% from an average of $2 per day to $10. Also, due to the increased productivity and the social recognition of their role and value of their work, their children can go to school because the parents do not need them to collect waste in order to survive. This allows mothers and fathers to dream that their children may have better opportunities.
Men and women waste pickers are working hand in hand in the collection of recycling along with integrated grassroots associations, unions and micro enterprises, to strengthen and achieve the desired aims of prosperity and inclusion. Unlike any other excluded social sector, women and men work closely together as recyclers with equality and mutual respect to address the problems and requirements to succeed and stop being excluded by society and governments.
For this reason, it is perhaps the most important message carried by recyclers and recycling that equality is essential in the battle against exclusion.