Women and Chemical Safety in Africa: the Case of the Flower Sector

#Expert – Blog Series: How to create a gender-just healthy planet

by Dr. Yahya Msangi

Introduction

The fight for chemical safety in Africa is complicated by many factors. First is the fact that many chemicals do not cause instant visible harm, damage or death. Chemicals are silent operators. In a continent where there are a number of other causes of instant harm, damage and death such as mosquitoes, wild animals and pathogens effects of chemicals are not prioritized. Other factors that complicate the fight for chemical safety are culture, poverty, high rates of illiteracy, aggressive marketing by the industry, lack of expertise, poor policies and enforcement of legislations.

There is no group that is more affected than women and children, in particular working women, and the flower sector shows the typical problems.

Flower farm worker, Tanzania – Photo by Sam Fox/Equal Times

The Flower Sector, Women and Chemicals in Africa

Kenya was the first country in Africa to develop the flower sector and it was followed by Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Ethiopia. Flower production shifted from Northern developed countries to Southern developing countries due to lower health and environmental standards in the South, availability of sunshine, free land and water. Labor costs are also much lower. But production of flowers requires intensive use of chemicals and plastic sheets. This increases the risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals to women. Why women? Because the flower industry is feminine! In general, flower production employs 80 % women, particularly girls of ages between 16-28 years. Why? There is a silent belief that flowers require tenderness in their production, and women are linked to tenderness. However, behind this there are hidden reasons!

In Africa, women are less educated and are therefore paid less than their male counterparts. In Africa, women are brought up to become obedient and less argumentative especially in front of men (though the workforce is feminine almost 90% of supervisors in flower farms are men!). When you are paid less and expected not to speak out the possibility of exposure to chemicals increases. For example, low salaries force women in the flower sector to work longer hours in order to earn overtime pay. Women also don’t ask for personal protective clothing (PPE) as doing so will be regarded as being argumentative, which is against culture and tradition.

©miratrick

Women in the flower sector are more exposed during high demand seasons in the developed countries i.e. during Valentine, Mother’s Day, Christmas and Easter. Ironically it is fellow women in developed countries who are the main consumers of flowers during these periods! The more the demand in the North, the higher the rate of exposure in the South. Cases of instantaneous abortions, nausea, loss of consciousness, etc. are not very uncommon during these periods, particularly in the green houses and grading rooms.

In order to address the situation a group of NGOs and Trade Unions established the International Cut Flower Code of Conduct (ICC). This code mainstreamed gender and chemical safety issues and was used by many   programs including the Fair Flowers Fair Plants Program (FFP – Netherlands, see also their benchmark document for label certification), the Flower Labelling Program (FLP – Germany; not active at the moment), Max Havelaar – Switzerland), The Kenya Flower Council and the Ethiopian Code for the cut flower industry.

Mainstreaming gender and chemical safety in codes of practice for each industry or occupation is the best way of protecting women, girls and children. In my view, all international programs including SAICM, Paris Climate Agreement, Agenda 2030 and others should design appropriate codes of practice or provide guidance to stakeholders rather than just mentioning gender issues in their texts. To me, just mentioning or acknowledging the gender dimension is not enough; it is artificial mainstreaming. Real mainstreaming requires more than text!

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Dr. Yahya Msangi

Dr. Yahya Msangi is the International Tech Adviser for Sustdev, Climate Change and Chemical Safety at the Youth NGO “Welfare Togo”. His profession is Environmental Resource Management and Occupational Safety and Health with work experiences in Agriculture Land use Planning, Farm Management, Workers Unions and the Global Pesticides Project.

More information about Welfare Togo and their work you can find on their website: https://twelfare.wordpress.com/, or you can contact them via E-mail: togowelfare(at)gmail.com

 

 

Introducing our new blog series “How to create a gender-just healthy planet” – with experts and explanations every two weeks

“Healthy [environment] [planet], healthy people!” – This is the vision with the most support for a new international framework on chemicals and waste management beyond 2020.

And we agree: this vision can be a strong statement for the future.

Health is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO 2006). We all know that this is not the case for everyone around the world, nor for our planet. One reason are massive gender inequalities, manifest in every dimension of sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes that gender equality is central to this transformative vision as an important goal in itself and as a catalyst for progress across the entire Agenda (UN 2015). Therefore, it is crucial to integrate a gender perspective into the implementation and monitoring of all the Sustainable Development Goals and UN Institutions working on them (UN Women 2018) – including in chemicals policies.

In short, there are three main reasons why gender is an issue for chemicals policy:

  1. Gender, as a social category, is linked to gender-specific norms of behaviour, roles in society as well as the development of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ identities, which in turn influence people’s behaviour, including their impact on the environment, their affectedness by environmental degradation, and their access to and power over resources.
  2. Gender, as a biological category, shows that women’s and men’s bodies are affected differently by certain chemicals – exposure, risk, and impacts can be different between the sexes.
  3. Gender analysis allows to ask questions that help us understand and unpack root causes of unsustainable behaviour and societies, and hence have a transformational potential. We need to tap into this potential in order to bring about sustainable development, justice and peace.

SAICM has an agreed Overarching Policy Strategy (OPS) that sets out the scope, needs, objectives, financial considerations underlying principles and approaches, and implementation and review arrangements of SAICM as a platform and process. The OPS underlines the specific importance of women as stakeholders and their still evident lack of representation in the implementation and decision-making processes for the sound management of chemicals and chemical safety (SAICM 2012).

Yet, specific knowledge on differentiated and long-term effects of chemicals on women and men is still lacking. Most delegations and stakeholders are not aware of the knowledge we do have. Comprehensive gender analysis of chemicals and waste management is lacking even more. Like in many other areas, we need to increase research to obtain sex-disaggregated data, analyze gender roles and identities and how they impact our interactions with chemicals and waste along the whole life cycle. But how to go about that?

Blogs with experts and explanations

With our new blog article series, we want discuss how we can create a gender-just healthy planet and demonstrate the potential of gender mainstreaming into chemicals policies. There will be a brief article every two weeks.

  • Blog articles by experts from organisations and stakeholders – e.g. relevant UN bodies, governments, gender experts, and colleagues working on implementation projects dealing with gender and chemicals and waste – will share their expertise and experiences
  • Blogs offering explanations and background about concepts, tools and strategies to mainstream gender into chemicals and waste management.

Enjoy reading!

Anna and Minu from the MSP Institute – Project “Gender and Chemicals Beyond 2020”

P.S.: If you would like to join the group of blog authors, let us know! We’re happy to include your article in the series. Pls email anna.holthaus(at)msp-institute.org

References:

SAICM (2012): SAICM Texts and Resolutions of the International Conference on Chemicals Management. http://www.saicm.org/Portals/12/Documents/saicmtexts/New%20SAICM%20Text%20with%20ICCM%20resolutions_E.pdf

UN (2015): Transforming our world. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf

UN Women (2018): Turning promises into action: Gender equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. http://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2018/2/gender-equality-in-the-2030-agenda-for-sustainable-development-2018#view

WHO (2006): Constitution of the World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/governance/eb/who_constitution_en.pdf