Gender mainstreaming supports both men's and women's equal contributions through policies and programs that address their specific needs. It has been defined by the United Nations Economic and Social Council as ‘a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated’.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to address inequalities among all population groups, especially children, women and the impoverished. By directly addressing the links between the environment and gender in the context of the SDGs, it is believed that there will be new opportunities to help achieve them in a more sustainable and beneficial manner. SDG 5 has been created to achieve gender equality and improve women’s rights.

Gender and the sound management of chemicals and waste

Gender is relevant to the sound management of chemicals and waste because women and men have different physiological susceptibilities as well as varying roles in societies that can impact decision-making and chemical exposure. Chemical safety is not present in all groups of the population in today’s world and the effects of chemical exposure differs depending on many diverse factors, e.g. geographical location, behavioural patterns, age, nutritional status, biological effect and/or exposure to a combination of chemicals at the same time (sometimes referred to as the “chemical cocktail").

When gender is mainstreamed across high priority development issues, it can create strategic opportunities to focus operations and provide benefits for both men and women. Identifying these strategic opportunities—such as promoting secure and safe working conditions—can yield tangible results.

UN Environment and the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) are working in partnership on gender and chemicals, in particular on raising awareness, promoting women's’ engagement and leadership in decision-making processes as well as contributing to activities related to the Strategic Approach emerging policy issues and relevant SDGs.  Furthermore, it is very positive that gender considerations have been increasingly incorporated into global multilateral environmental agreements, including the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions and the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

Gender and the SAICM Emerging Policy Issues

SAICM stakeholders have identified eight emerging policy issues and other issues of concern since the inception of the Strategic Approach in 2006. In general, all of these have susceptibility and exposure considerations related to gender, which I would like to illustrate:

1. Lead in paint

Lead, a widely used toxic metal, contaminates the environment and causes extensive public health problems. Children are particularly vulnerable and the exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead may cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and minor malformations.

2. Highly hazardous pesticides

Understanding gender roles in agricultural communities can create opportunities to unpack root causes of unsustainable behaviour in communities and has the potential to support transformational change. For example, a large number of women in South Asia, East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture and related tasks such as washing pesticide containers and thinning crops exposed to pesticides. The resulting exposure calls for the regulation of the use of highly hazardous pesticides.

3. Chemicals in products (CiP)

Efforts to label and classify chemicals help consumers make informed choices. By engaging with consumer product sectors, there are opportunities to empower workers and consumers, for example, to understand potential exposures to chemicals and to target initiatives to empower particularly vulnerable groups. UNEP’s Chemicals in Products programme promotes transparency of information in supply chains and is currently focused on, but not limited to, the following sectors: textiles, toys, building materials, and electronics.

4. Hazardous substances within the life cycle of electronic products

The manufacture of electrical and electronic products relies on the use of over 1,000 chemicals, many of which lack comprehensive health and safety information due to weak regulatory policies. As the electronics industry has grown, women in Latin America and Asia have become the primary source of labour, and are now exposed to high levels of toxins such as lead and chromium.

5. Nanotechnology and nanomaterials

Nanomaterials, which can be found in many consumer products, can affect both male and female reproductive systems. These materials are prevalent in pharmaceuticals and textiles, and in the products related to information and communications technology.

6. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs)

EDCs affect the hormone systems of men, women and children. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics notes that the global rise in non-communicable diseases, as well as the increase in preterm births, low-birth-weight babies, and the early onset of breast development can be partially attributed to EDCs.

7. Environmentally persistent pharmaceutical pollutants (EPPPs)

The sources of pharmaceutical pollution include drug manufacturing, human excretion, disposal from homes and hospitals, and wastewater from large-scale livestock operations. However, gender-specific effects of EPPPs remain largely unknown, due to the limited methods to measure such a wide-spread phenomenon.

8. Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)

PFCs have become extensively used in both industrial and consumer products to make them resistant to stains, water, grease, or heat. Studies have shown that high levels of PFCs can be highly toxic, and animal tests have found PFCs to be potentially carcinogenic in the reproductive and fetal development stages, although these effects on humans remain inconclusive.

In general, all of the SAICM emerging policy issues and other issues of concern have susceptibility and exposure considerations related to gender, though no on-going gender activities are formally identified within the Strategic Approach context.

A gender review across the current emerging policy issues and other issues of concern has been initiated as part of the SAICM GEF Project “Chemicals without Concern”, and will be available in 2020.

For further information on gender and the sound management of chemicals and waste, access the resources below.