Sri Lankan women carry the main burden of household work, so they have knowledge and influence that could be channeled to improve community waste management, which is not only harming health and the environment but also causing disputes between different communities.

The government’sTime-Use Survey of 2017 found that women spend 27.6 per cent more time than men doing housework each day. Yet while women are the ones handling all the household waste, they barely have a voice when it comes to deciding how to manage waste in the larger community.

In Sri Lanka, the local government Authorities or Councils have the primary responsibility for collecting and disposing of waste within their areas. But historically, very few women have held seats on these bodies because of institutional and structural barriers, and gender stereotypes such as that politics is unsuitable for women or that women should just stay at home.

Before the last local elections, in 2018, women held only 1.9 per cent of these seats. A new 25 per cent quota for female representation boosted that number, though today, women still hold only 23.7 per cent of seats.

To address the problem of women’s representation and environmental management, UN Women, United Nations Office for Project Services, and Chrysalis, a local non-governmental organization, are jointly implementing a project called Promoting Women’s Engagement in Effective Solid Waste Management. The 2020-2021 project, funded by United Nations Peacebuilding Fund, is expected to directly benefit about 4,000 people in Puttalam and Mannar districts along the country’s western coast. Most people in these districts work in fisheries and in agriculture.

“Through this project, we are working with women to ensure their voices are heard and that they are fully involved in making decisions that impact them, their households and communities,” said Ramaaya Salgado, Country Focal Point at UN Women Sri Lanka. “Solid waste management was identified as the main community issue that this project addresses, but we are building their capacities so that this whole-of-community approach can be replicated in addressing other conflicts and community issues as well.”

Because improper waste disposal harms health, the environment and intercommunal relations, the project brings communities together to develop sustainable solutions for their shared environment — with women at the forefront of that process.

In April 2020, the project organized a series of local-level dialogues in which about 350 elected officials, public officials, women community leaders, members of civil society groups, religious leaders, young people and others in Puttalam and Mannar discussed common issues and solutions to waste management. UN Women and Chrysalis then gave the dialogue participants training on collective leadership, peacebuilding and non-violent conflict resolution.

Earlier this month, UN Women organized two town hall meetings that connected local authorities and women community leaders with experts in solid waste management, including environmental and civil engineers, local government officials and environmental activists. The broader aim was to get more women into leadership positions and adopt best practices on solid waste management.

The women participating in the UN Women project include Kaweeda Manohari, 48, a member of the Chilaw Municipal Council in Puttalam, and Dilushani Fernando, a social worker and community leader in Puttalam.

“Recently, I had to be a mediator to a conflict between two parties,” Manohari said. “Since it was fresh in my mind, I was able to use some of the techniques I learned at our training to help the two parties arrive at a compromise and push for a legal solution to their issue.”

Fernando said: “I learned a lot about waste segregation and the economic benefits of upcycling while reducing waste. Now I always think twice before throwing away something. I use it to create something new instead. This is what I hope to teach young children in my community.”