Empowering women to combat mercury exposure: why gender matters in capacity-building projects

07 Mar 2023

Toxic mercury affects us all, but not all in the same way: women are disproportionately impacted by mercury, with higher health risks due to factors such as pregnancies, cosmetics and industries like artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM).

International Women's Day

Fully aware of this vulnerability, the Minamata Convention has made gender mainstreaming a priority in its mission to protect human health and the environment from the harmful effects of mercury.

This includes the Secretariat’s assistance to Parties, with one of the two components of the financial mechanism of the Convention, the Specific International Programme to Support Capacity-Building and Technical Assistance (SIP), taking full account of gender considerations in project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. More importantly, SIP projects are beginning to show real results in reducing risks to women in all their diversity from exposure to mercury from a wide variety of sources.

In Armenia, the first-round SIP project “Strengthening capacity to promote phasing-out of mercury-added products (lamps)”, completed in November 2021, tackled the severe danger associated with mercury-containing lamps, namely the exposure to elemental mercury, working closely with the non-governmental organization “Armenian Women for Health and Healthy Environment” (AWHHE) as a key partner in several activities.

Project coordination was ensured by the Hazardous Substances and Wastes Policy Department of the Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Armenia. Anahit Aleksandryan, Legal Adviser of the Ministry of Environment, stated: “During the project, Armenia collected data on mercury-containing lamps streams, including import, distribution, use and amount of wastes generated per year, and developed a strategy for the sound collection, storage, transportation, and waste management of mercury-containing lamps in the country. Armenia also reviewed and updated its legislation to comprehensively address this risk”.

Studies show that mercury-containing lamps can cause a range of health problems if inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. If they break, the mercury contained inside can be released into the environment as a vapour or liquid droplets. When this happens, as well as when these lamps are improperly disposed, the elemental mercury can seep into the soil or waterways, where it can accumulate in the food chain.

Aleksandryan added that “in close cooperation with the non-governmental organization AWHHE, we have studied the distribution of lamps in different regions, and developed awareness-raising campaigns in different regions of Armenia”. AWHHE conducted this study in retailer shops in eight of the ten regions of Armenia and in Yerevan. Gohar Khojayan, Communication Specialist at AWHHE, noted that “our awareness-raising campaigns were addressed to vulnerable populations, speaking about health hazards of mercury, available alternatives and types of lamps available on the market”.

The campaigns reached 170 individuals, including representatives of various public organizations, medical doctors, representatives of municipalities, non-governmental organizations, housewives, farmers, students, teachers and lecturers of educational institutions.

More gender-mainstreaming projects

Armenia’s project is one of several exemplifying the importance of gender mainstreaming in both the technical assistance and implementation phases of their country’s obligations under the Convention. With the growing recognition of the need to address the devastating impacts of toxic mercury on women, the SIP Application Guidelines highlight that gender is one of the appraisal criteria of the applications, and that all projects must demonstrate how they will address gender considerations from inception to execution.

In Argentina, the first-round SIP project “Capacity building programme for the implementation of the Minamata Convention”, completed in December 2021, carried out various activities to identify aspects of the relationship between mercury and gender in the country. A report on mercury and gender issues highlighted how biological differences and social factors, including discrepancies in occupation and household responsibilities, influence the way men and women are exposed to mercury.

The findings showed that coordination with key actors is crucial to identify the populations that are potentially at risk in order to design public policies that protect them, including full engagement with the health sector to raise awareness of the health and environmental dangers posed by mercury-added healthcare products and their potential risks to caregivers. The report also suggested further actions to advance public policies that provide women and pregnant women with the necessary care and support to avoid dental restorations with mercury amalgam.

In Zambia, the second-round project “To strengthen the institutional capacity to implement the obligations of the Minamata Convention by reducing the presence of mercury in vulnerable populations”, which will conclude in February 2024, aims to reduce the exposure to mercury, especially women and children. One of the major sources of mercury exposure in Zambia is skin-lightening creams and soaps, products that can cause skin rashes, discolouration and scarring; nervous, digestive and immune system damage; anxiety and depression. The project aims, among other things, to raise awareness of the effects of exposure to mercury and mercury compounds on human health; to evaluate the extent of the use of products listed by the Minamata Convention, including skin-lightening creams and soaps, and to develop strategies to phase out these products.

Rwanda’s third-round SIP project “Strengthening the institutional capacities to implement the Minamata Convention” will run until September 2025 with gender specific activities and indicators, such as awareness raising campaigns and information materials. The Gender Monitoring Office, part of the National Mercury Working Group which was established to coordinate the implementation of the project, will share expertise in gender mainstreaming. The project will also include the organization of a national multi-stakeholder forum to highlight the impacts of mercury on gender, which aims to become a baseline to the development of a gender action plan to guide future activities on sound management of mercury and mercury waste in the country.

Visit the SIP webpage to learn more about the previous rounds of capacity-building projects, their work and activities, and their impact to tackle toxic mercury and protect the health of millions of people around the world.

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