06 Mar 2020 Story Chemicals & waste

Creating a safer future for girls

Chemicals and waste are integral to our everyday life, but they also have major impacts on the environment and human health. As the world’s population approaches 8 billion, the sound management of chemicals and waste is becoming ever more important.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) works closely with governments, international organizations, industry and civil society organizations around the world to develop mainstream solutions for the sound management of chemicals and waste.

As the world focuses on International Women’s Day, here are some examples of how women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the unsustainable management of chemicals and waste, and have an especially high stake in global sustainable development.

In many countries, women may be asked to handle the management and disposal of household waste, which could expose them to highly toxic substances that may significantly impact their health and that of their families.

Women and girls make up nearly half of all agricultural workers in developing countries and could be at an increased likelihood of mishandling chemicals and pesticides due to higher illiteracy rates as compared to men.

Cultural norms may also put women and girls at risk from potentially unsafe beauty and hygiene products, especially women of colour in some part of the world who are more likely to use products containing toxic substances, such as skin whiteners and specialized hair products.

“Addressing the unique needs and circumstances of women when developing sustainable solutions for the sound management of chemicals and waste is of paramount importance,” says Dina Abdelhakim, gender focal point for the UNEP’s Chemicals and Health Branch.

“Compared to men, women have vastly different exposures and interactions with chemicals and waste in their daily lives. It’s been estimated that women are exposed to over 160 chemicals every day through personal hygiene products. If you also factor in exposure to household chemicals and waste as well as workplace exposure, the chemical burden on women becomes significant. This, combined with differences in their physiology and their role in child bearing and rearing, means that failing to address gender differences neglects the needs of half of the world’s population as well as of future generations. To effectively mainstream gender issues into the chemicals and waste agenda requires that countries are consistent in collecting gender disaggregated data, and use that evidence to make informed decisions and policies at the national level.

This is why it is even more important for meetings such as the Fifth session of the International Conference for Chemicals Management scheduled for October 2020 in Bonn, Germany, to take into account gender aspects and vulnerabilities, as commitments on chemicals and waste are made for the beyond 2020 agenda.

Sustainable Development Goal 5 focuses on achieving gender quality and empowerment for all women and girls. This starts with education: girls are significantly under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, which play a crucial role in sustainable development, and make up only a little over a quarter of all researchers worldwide. Therefore, empowering girls to launch careers in the sciences is vital to create a significant change.

“Policy must be underpinned by excellence and innovation in science to move society in the direction of greater sustainability,” says Monika Macdevette Chief of UNEP’s Chemicals and Health Branch. “One of the best ways to push for that change is to involve women and girls in the process, from primary education to the most influential decision-making bodies. Let’s start today, so we can ensure a bright future for the girls born tomorrow.”

For more information on gender mainstreaming or the Fifth session of the International Conference for Chemicals Management, please contact the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management Secretariat at saicm.chemicals@un.org.