December 2021

Gender Lens: Saamuhika Shakti’s Focus on Inclusion

Authored by Rashi Rathi, Gender Lead, Saamuhika Shakti, The/Nudge Foundation

Equity and inclusion form the underpinning of Saamuhika Shakti, a collective impact initiative in solidarity with Bengaluru’s informal waste pickers. The waste picker community has been historically dispossessed because of their caste, class, and symbolic association with ‘dirt’.  Eight organizations (BBC Media Action India, CARE India, Hasiru Dala, Save the Children India, Sambhav by LabourNet, Social Alpha, The/Nudge Foundation, and WaterAid India) have joined hands to enable the community to have greater agency to lead secure and dignified lives. Saamuhika Shakti espouses the principles of equity by addressing the challenges faced by vulnerable subgroups within the waste picker community, especially women and girls. This article describes the framework and activities by which the collective translates the principles of gender equity into tangible action, with the intention to consolidate a body of knowledge that other collaboratives can engage with and give feedback on. 

Numerous studies from world-over have shown that, while waste pickers provide the vital service of waste management in urban areas, often bolstering municipality services where waste and recycling amenities are below capacity or absent, they are bottom-of-pyramid in most urban local waste economies. Waste pickers make subsistence level incomes, undertake some of the most hazardous aspects of waste work, and face immense social stigma--all of which profoundly impact their mental and physical wellbeing. *

This inequity is magnified when adopting a gender lens. In Bengaluru, a baseline study by WaterAid India across 13 waste picker localities found that 63% of the respondents were female waste pickers, most having little to no education or investable capital. Another baseline study by CARE India across 6 waste picker localities found that most waste pickers had migrated to Bengaluru, belonged to the Dalit community, and faced caste-based discrimination. Women waste pickers, typically employed as sorters of recyclable waste, formed the lowest rung of the waste value chain and had little opportunity for upward mobility. The flexible hours of waste picking accommodated their domestic obligations of household chores and care work. Many were victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment, and abandonment. The Saamuhika Shakti team used these baselines to analyze the multifaceted challenges faced by waste pickers and develop differentiated or deeper programs that address the needs of the whole community. 

Saamuhika Shakti’s approach to gender and equity harnesses the power of collective impact. John Kania and Mark Kramers distinguish a collective impact approach from a partnership or collaboration between organizations in a 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article. They write, “...collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.”

Based on these defining characteristics of collective impact, Saamuhika Shakti’s gender and equity activities can be described under the following heads.

Centralized Infrastructure, Dedicated Staff

Collective impact projects require a ‘backbone’ support organization that exclusively manages the program, monitors individual and collective progress, and handles external-facing communication. Apart from fulfilling these functions, The/Nudge Foundation (Saamuhika Shakti’s backbone) also has a dedicated ‘Gender Lead’. The Gender Lead ensures that Saamuhika Shakti’s activities are gender mainstreamed by collaborating with partner organizations, supporting them when required, and engaging external technical support as needed. For instance, the Gender Lead has periodically collaborated with The Incubation Network (an initiative that supports innovations that tackle plastic pollution) to exchange best practices and resources that support partner organizations in building gender-sensitive programs. 

Common Agenda

Working groups are the pillars on which collective impact initiatives stand. Saamuhika Shakti’s ‘Gender Working Group’ (GWG) consists of the Gender Lead, gender experts, and practitioners across partner organizations. It steers the agenda and problem understanding for all the gender-related aspects of the project, as well as problem-solves, co-creates, and implements strategies.

As an example, the GWG reached a consensus to expand the definition of ‘gender’ to ‘intersectional gender identities’, which also takes into account other dimensions of waste pickers’ lives that make them vulnerable (such as their age, caste, sexual orientation, place of birth, and mother tongue). WaterAid uses this definition in its work while constructing inclusive sanitation complexes in waste picker communities. These complexes have toilet stalls that account for the needs of the elderly, pregnant mothers, and women who often use toilets accompanied by their children.

WaterAid toilet facility in Sumanahalli. As the Sumanahalli community opted for Indian-style toilets over Western-style toilets, toilet stalls have handlebars that can be used by the elderly to prevent them from falling.

Shared Measurement 

Saamuhika Shakti partners have committed to a ‘Unified Gender Framework,’ with the support from a consulting organization, Gender at Work.  In the Unified gender Framework document, partners explicitly state gender-related objectives they would like to achieve through the length of the project and their targets under each objective. This framework has the dual purpose of ensuring alignment between the objectives of different partners, as well as forms the basis of monitoring their progress towards the common agenda. Partners provide qualitative updates of their progress on a monthly basis, and gender-disaggregated quantitative updates (where applicable) on a quarterly basis.

To illustrate, BBC Media Action India produces campaigns for the citizenry of Bengaluru to improve their perception of waste pickers’ work.  They have additionally committed that at least ten percent of the content they produce will showcase gender-related stories of waste-pickers. Similarly, Social Alpha, which supports innovations and entrepreneurship in the waste management sector, has committed to ensuring that all the organizations it works with will have policies that promote gender equality and prevent discrimination against women in the workplace. 

Continuous Communication

Monthly GWG  meetings allow each partner organization to showcase their progress, appreciate the complementary work of other organizations, and deliberate common challenges and milestones. For instance, the need to build a shared understanding of gender and intersectionality was identified in one such discussion. Based on this, CARE India conducted the first of a quarterly series of workshops with all field operatives across Saamuhika Shakti. The ultimate objective of this workshop series is to build a common understanding of intersectional gender identities and empower teams to develop gender-sensitive programs for waste picker communities.

Glimpses of a recent workshop with Saamuhika Shakti’s field operatives. The workshop brought issues of gender and equity to the fore by helping teams reflect on their own identities and gendered experiences.

Mutually Reinforcing Activities

Finally, partners in a collective impact project carry out diverse activities, according to their areas of expertise, in coordination with each other. The sum of the parts results in a holistic intervention for the stakeholders concerned. For example, Saamuhika Shakti partners conduct distinct interventions with women and girls that cumulatively increase their agency: Save the Children India works with children and their parents to spread awareness about gender equality. They focus on key messages such as continuing girls’ education and discontinuing the practice of child marriage. WaterAid India conducts menstrual hygiene management workshops with women and girls in waste picker communities to ensure that they have safe and comfortable periods. CARE India and Hasiru Dala help women waste pickers organize themselves in self-help groups, enabling them to build their savings, and access credit and social protections. Sambhav by LabourNet supports women with vocational skills, training them to be beauticians or set up sewing enterprises in their homes so that they can step out of the waste picking profession if they wish to.

A Save the Children India signboard that discourages the practice of child marriage, still prevalent in some waste picker localities, and provides helpline numbers.

The north star for all of Saamuhika Shakti's work is to enable the agency of waste pickers so that they can lead secure and dignified lives. Incrementally shifting the mindset of the waste picker community, as well as the Saamuhika Shakti team, to be inclusive and gender-sensitive is an integral part of the journey. We expect the road to be rich with learning and insights, and look forward to showcasing them to all of you in future knowledge-building blogs and articles.

*Binion & Gutberlet, 2012; Gutberlet & Uddin; Wittmer 2020

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