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|Caitlin Wiesen, resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme in Vietnam|
In an effort to cope with the climate emergency and environmental pollution, as well as biodiversity, in March the world’s environment ministers endorsed a resolution to lay the foundation for preparation of an international and legally-binding agreement to end plastic pollution by 2024.
For the first time, the contributions of the informal waste workers - who are typically low-paid workers who collect recyclable waste - have been recognised in an environmental resolution. The intergovernmental negotiating committee will consider the lessons and best practices from the work of informal waste workers.
While this inclusion is something to celebrate, there was no specific mention of women and the gendered aspects of the informal waste sector. Yet globally, women make up the majority of the workforce working in the informal waste management sectors. Here in Vietnam, over 60 per cent of them are women who work in precarious situations and are exposed to harmful substances and chemicals along the value chains in the textile, agriculture, or waste sectors.
Women are disproportionally impacted by plastic pollution. They also have direct exposure to toxic gases and emissions from waste burning and cooking fuels, and can suffer from heat-related diseases and skyrocketing air pollution levels.
At the COP26 climate summit last year, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh emphasised the need for Vietnam to transition to a green, circular, sustainable, inclusive, and humanistic economy. As Vietnam strives to accelerate a green and inclusive economic rebound, it is imperative to set the stage to work towards gender equality, circular economy, and climate action simultaneously as interconnected issues to deliver the transformational systemic change needed to protect the planet and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
As a result, Vietnam has included the circular economy in its socioeconomic development strategy for 2021-2030 and the Law on Environmental Protection 2020, and introduced its first circular economy hub.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been working closely with Vietnam in the circular economy transition, with a special focus on promoting circular economy models for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and supporting informal waste workers, particularly women and women-led enterprises. For the first time, with the support from the government of the Netherlands, the UNDP has implemented a capacity-building programme for enterprises to accelerate the circular economy transition in Vietnam.
This aims to support SMEs to design and implement their circular business model and work plan. Informal waste workers, particularly women, have been playing a key role in the waste value chain in Vietnam, and so it is time to integrate this informal workforce into the waste management system to ensure a just circular economy transition.
To set in motion this transition, we propose the 3V’s of value, venture, and velocity to empower women and generate a green, inclusive, economic rebound.
Value, venture, and velocity
Firstly, we must value, welcome, and acknowledge the contributions of all women, especially those from rural areas, ethnic minorities, and young women already working towards a greener and more inclusive sustainable development, advocating for renewable energy, decarbonising their agricultural production, or scaling-up innovative alternatives to plastics.
For example, more than 1,500 women informal waste workers in five cities have joined local groups set up by women’s unions. They receive training on health and safety, waste segregation, and circular principles, thus enhancing their skills and knowledge. They can also access revolving funds managed and disbursed by women’s groups to purchase equipment that will add value to their work and enhance their livelihoods.
Another example is women-led farmer cooperatives in the south-central province of Binh Thuan, which have led the adoption of low-carbon practices throughout the dragon fruit value chains. Along with the greening of production, the additional training in e-commerce provided extra support to overcome economic losses incurred by pandemic restrictions and broaden their customer base.
Throughout these interventions, we have witnessed the critical roles of the women’s unions and women-led cooperatives that are increasing the skills and knowledge of women who are already engaged in critical activities, but the reach of this knowledge goes beyond these women and directly permeates throughout their communities.
Secondly, we must design new ventures that embed women in policy-making processes for a just and inclusive transition. A number of bottlenecks exist that hamper Vietnamese women from fully benefiting from, and contributing to, the circular transition. These include limited participation in policy formulation, lack of systematic gender mainstreaming of industrial policies, limited access to financial and technical resources and concentration in the informal sector, and the burden of unpaid care work.
For instance, it is critical to ensure that the current trend of formalisation of the waste management sector is not achieved at the expense of women. In this connection, the UNDP is setting up an inclusive material recovery facility in the south-central province of Binh Dinh to generate direct and indirect employment for women working across the waste value chains while piloting plastic reduction projects in the fishery sectors, with financial support from the Norwegian government.
Women are also found to be more sustainable consumers and inclined to adopt greener and sustainable practices, from water savings to the purchase of eco-label products or the use of low-carbon transportation modes. The emergence of social impact business ecosystems in Vietnam, mainly driven by women, also reflects the influence of women in changing both consumption and production patterns for circularity.
Thirdly, we must commit to expanding the opportunities for women to take leading roles that give velocityand drive to the transition. Circular economy and climate policies will have implications for the future of jobs.
A recent study by the UNDP in Indonesia found that 75 per cent of the 4.4 million jobs created by adopting circular opportunities in four sectors will be for women because sectors traditionally employing more men (extractive industries and construction) will be displaced. This means that we need to invest considerably in educating the new generation of women engineers, architects, scientists, and urban planners.
With any transition, there is a need to ensure that all people, especially women and marginalised communities, are cushioned from changes that might negatively impact their livelihoods.
Many countries, such as South Korea, Singapore, and South Africa have developed social inclusivity packages to support and accelerate the green and sustainable recovery of their economies in a just manner. These include building the capacities and re-skilling workers from polluting industries, mobilising international climate finance that will benefit women and marginalised groups, and prioritising measures that deliver on co-benefits.
Further, they also include providing technical and financial support to SMEs for green pre-commercial opportunities, and developing strategic partnerships between the private sector, government, and others.
With UNDP support, the Vietnam Circular Economy Hub is diving deep into all aspects of transitioning to a carbon-neutral circular economy, from technical aspects to social and financial aspects, to ensure a just transition.
The UNDP calls on all our partners to join together and embrace a new mission for an inclusive carbon-neutral circular economy – one that re-shapes value chains, re-thinks consumption and production patterns, and shakes up entrenched gender dynamics for a just transition that ensures that no-one is left behind.