Nepal, while being a hotbed for adventure seekers, trekkers, tourists, and mountaineers, faces many economic struggles that heavily plague low-and-middle income countries. The vast majority of Nepal’s economy is based on remittances with 25 percent of its working population living outside of the country. Additionally, with an average population age of 23, Nepal has a dismal 50 percent unemployment rate. These systemic economic struggles, of course, disproportionately affect women and subsequently their children and families. Couple that with a stringent caste system and some Nepali women remain inherently stuck on the lowest rung of the class ladder and are subject to some of the basest forms of work available to them.
The Himalayan Climate Initiative (HCI), a youth-driven environmental NGO based in Kathmandu, is working with some of these women whose only other economically viable life option may be selling themselves sexually to the nearest customer, working in the illegal scrap waste trade, or going abroad to find work and then enduring whatever fate awaits them. HCI employs socially discriminated women waste workers at its PET Bottle Recollection Social Enterprise (Nagar Mitra) allowing them to create a livelihood beyond what might traditionally befall them.
PET plastic is 100 percent recyclable in the waste management industry and as market demand for PET increases it can provide income for individuals whether you live in Kansas City or Kathmandu. Of the 29 people HCI employs full-time at its collecting, sorting, and baling facility of PET bottles 23 of them are women who work primarily as bottle sorters. HCI pays fair salary benefits for each worker and believes in its mission to uplift the social status of waste workers and particularly provides benefits to its women workers to allow them the flexibility to both work and take care of their families or earn an education.
Here are five ways HCI helps its women waste workers earn a living wage and treats them with dignity and respect.
- Flexible Hours: Women around the world have to balance work and home life. This becomes even more acute in developing countries where becoming a wage earner can be difficult for women. Women spend 1 to 3 hours more on unpaid family work than men. At HCI women are given flexible hours where they can come to work on weekends and at odd hours.“Poor people can benefit immensely by picking plastic,” said Prashant Singh, founder of HCI and its former CEO. “Most women won’t be able to work if you don’t give them flexible timing,” he added.
- Maternity Care: Socially discriminated women waste workers can find it difficult to access quality health care especially when they are pregnant. HCI provides maternity care programs for some of its workers in partnership with Midwifery Society of Nepal. During a recent program six pregnant Nagar Mitra – Friends of the City – workers were examined and provided with clean delivery kits as well as maternity and infant kits. The workers were also given the names of practitioners at a local maternity hospital so they can have a facility birth instead of delivering at home.Getting prenatal care is especially important in developing countries where maternal mortality rates are high. Nepal has a maternal mortality ratio of 254 deaths per 100,000 live births. In 2015, 1500 Nepali women died during pregnancy or a month after delivery. While these numbers have dropped dramatically since 1990, quality maternity care and awareness is vital to keeping more women alive. Even one death is too many.
- Menstrual Days and Comfort Rooms: Since 70% of HIC’s workforce is women, they have enacted one optional menstrual day per month for its workers. HCI’s leadership understands that some women have difficult menstrual cycles and have provided these days to benefit its workers during their time of the month. Additionally, a comfort room will be created where women and men workers can rest if they are sick while at work.
- Legitimate Work: Unlike many of the illegal waste facilities in and around Kathmandu, the women workers HCI’s PET Bottle Recollection Social Enterprise receive a formal, legal, and fair supply line and work at a collecting, sorting, and baling facility that isn’t dirty and unsanitary. Plus, they earn more than their counterparts who work in illegal waste facilities.“We want to help waste workers. Our center gives double price for the plastic bottles,” said Singh.
- Gives Sex Trafficked Women Jobs: Some of the women who work at HCI’s PET Bottle Recollection Social Enterprise were either sex trafficked or are vulnerable to sex trafficking. HCI works with a local nonprofit that helps sexually trafficked women get jobs and leave the sex trade by going to Kathmandu’s slums and creating a database of sexually trafficked women. HCI then choses select women to provide with jobs.
To date, HCI workers have collected, sorted, and baled 10, 051,560 PET (plastic) bottles or 293 tons. This collective effort has helped to clean the environment although there is a long way to go to rid the country of PET waste and to educate Nepalis on the proper way to recycle PET bottles. Singh says that if you look at any of the rivers around Kathmandu they are all filled with plastic. In fact, in Nepal 17 tons of plastic is thrown on the ground every day.
HCI has relied on the financing and expertise of Coca-Cola Bottlers Nepal Limited as well as the Coca-Cola Foundation to reach this impressive milestone along with other key partners including GIZ, a German international aid development agency, and Ganesha Ecosphere, a company that recycles PET bottles in twenty collection centers across India and gives it a second life by turning it into textiles.
Currently HCI has hit an unexpected speedbump in its operations because India now refuses to accept PET waste from Nepal and Bhutan. In order to send the bales of PET bottles to India, HCI now must clean each bottle and cut them into small pieces. Even though this poses an immediate problem for HCI, it might become a new way to pay an even higher wage to their current workers and to hire more women due to the increased workload.
Coca-Cola paid all of my travel, accommodations, and expenses during my trip to Nepal.
All photos: Jennifer James