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21 Mar 2019 | News

Transforming gender and social perceptions in the brick industry

Luja Mathema & Sugat Bajracharya

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A female brick worker molds bricks in Dhading Picture By: Luja Mathema

With rapid urbanization and demand for construction materials in Nepal, brick kilns have proliferated across the country, providing livelihoods to an ever-increasing workforce. However, women labourers’ role is limited to more menial tasks and their scope for growth within the male-dominated industry is highly restricted. As the brick industry grows, so does its responsibility not only towards improving the air qual ity standards but also helping women in the industry grow and become economically independent.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) launched the Clean Brick Initiative in 2014 primarily to address pollution from brick kilns, but also to study the social component of brick production to understand the gender and socioeconomic aspects of the labourers’ working and living conditions. The initiative aims to initiate conversation and influence policy on the role and working conditions of vulnerable workers – especially women in the brick industry – helping entrepreneurs understand their responsibilities and social costs rather than just economic costs and benefits. Accordingly, a rapid gender need assessment (RGNA) involving group and individual discussions with workers, owners, and naikes (middle-persons) in the industry was conducted in 2018 across five provinces in Nepal: Biratnagar, Rautahat, Dhading, Rupandehi, and Kanchanpur. The RGNA’s findings highlighted the way forward to address the disparity in gender-wise division of labour in brick production.

There have been clear improvements in technology and pollution reduction in brick kilns in the five provinces assessed, but it has been difficult to bring about tangible changes in the working conditions and uneven labour division. No female brick entrepreneurs were involved in the gender and socioeconomic interventions, and to our knowledge there are only two female entrepreneurs in the brick industry. Men dominate the jobs considered to require more skills, such as fire-persons, stackers, animal owners, naikes, and managers. Women were assigned only menial tasks such as moulding and transporting because of cultural and social norms prevalent in South Asia. Firstly, these jobs permit flexible hours, which allows women to fulfill their expected household responsibilities. Secondly, tasks such as stacking and fire-persons are considered too dangerous and strenuous for women as they are high-risk activities in high temperatures. In one group discussion in Rautahat, menstruation was also raised as a reason why women are barred from working as fire-persons, given the social stigma around women’s menstruation. This indicated a clear cultural barrier for women to develop their skills and progress in the brick industry’s labour hierarchy. Along Nepal’s southern border, many kilns have exclusively male workforces as it is acceptable for men to migrate without their families.

During the initial stages of the social component, there were heated discussions where brick kiln owners were quite resistant to the interventions proposed by the ICIMOD team on the improvement of settlements, workplace hygiene, market access, healthcare access, education, and childcare access for individuals and families who migrate seasonally to work in the kilns. The main concerns of workers were related to major health risks: drudgery and exposure to dust. Additionally, the RGNA also highlighted the lack of proper hygiene and sanitation in many kilns and the lack of awareness about certain health risks, especially for pregnant women. Discussions took a dissentious turn when one individual felt the team was demanding too much from brick kiln owners, stating that they cannot provide for their workers in the same way they do for their family. This initial resistance was difficult to overcome, but their understanding and support was crucial for any substantial changes to be initiated. Despite the complications, the ICIMOD team was able to build consensus with the district association members and brick entrepreneurs through dialogue, discussion, and trust building.

Consequently, there have been positive changes in the brick industry over the last year, with the Federation of Nepal Brick Industries (FNBI), district associations, and brick entrepreneurs demonstrating their receptiveness to the gender and social interventions developed through the RGNA. Their push for gender and social changes in the industry was apparent during our field visit to far-west Nepal in February 2019, when we observed women crushing coal and stacking raw bricks. This was a very surprising development, as these used to be tasks usually reserved for men. This was the first time we saw women working outside their conventional role as moulders and transporters in the brick-processing chain. The FNBI and district associations have welcomed a number of interventions, which include: education and daycare center for brick workers’ children; financial literacy awareness for workers, especially female workers; and awareness materials on water- and air-borne diseases, hygiene and sanitation, and women’s health. The FNBI is also keen to establish a social unit within its organization to improve the brick industry through the preparation of a social code of conduct in collaboration with MinErgy and ICIMOD.

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