By Sophia Kulow
For much of the public, it is common to associate gender-based violence with only physical violence or visible discrimination against women and girls. However, slow violence, characterized as gradual and not necessarily visible, can be just as detrimental over time. The environmental crisis and its contributions, such as the ongoing issue of the world’s increasing use of plastics, is an example of slow violence. We are only beginning to see the full effects of environmental destruction, but also the humanitarian violations and gender-based violence.
While plastic pollution is considered a global problem, it is essential to note that the countries that produce the most plastic waste tend to be some of the wealthiest countries and are considered to be well-developed. The top polluter is the United States (Atlas and Boots). Despite these countries polluting the most plastic, those in vulnerable areas or disadvantaged communities around the world suffer the most from plastic waste. Plastic leaks and toxins released due to improper waste management procedures, being located by landfills or plastic treatment centers, and the overflowing amount of plastics that are shipped to these areas, impact the vulnerable the most.
While everyone from these communities tends to suffer from plastic waste, women are disproportionately affected by the issue. Traditional gender roles play a part in this type of gender-based violence. In rural communities, such as in Southeast Asia, women are homemakers and are frequently exposed to more household plastics in cleaners and other harmful items. Cosmetics and female hygiene products are known to contain large amounts of plastics, significantly contributing to women’s harmful chemical exposure. In fact 40% of beauty products contain microplastics. (The SeaCleaners)
Boys’ education in vulnerable communities is often prioritized over girls’ education, leading to girls aiding their mothers in waste picking, working in plastic treatment centers, or doing other hazardous work. Additionally, without education, the youth tend to be forced into a similar line of work when they are older, contributing to a lifetime of plastic toxin exposure.
Plastics are known to have several toxins linked to numerous health complications, and these toxins affect women’s bodies differently than men’s. Women’s metabolisms are more sensitive due to having higher estrogen levels, which results in a higher volume of fat that stores the toxins. Higher levels of estrogen make the rate of toxins escalate during puberty, pregnancy, lactation, and menopause (The SeaCleaners). Future generations may be impacted as the toxins can interfere with all phases of intrauterine development and ultimately cause newborn malformations.
Individuals have a role to play in reducing plastics consumption, however, corporate brands are largely responsible for how products are produced, sourced and packaged. Companies should be taking into consideration what happens to their product throughout the entire consumption cycle. In addition to reducing personal plastics consumption, consumers can urge companies to adopt corporate plastics reduction policies and adhere to global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Corporate brands should be held accountable to limiting single-use plastics that not only harm the environment, but exacerbate social and economic inequities that impact the lives of vulnerable women and girls.
Thus, with girls and women from vulnerable communities repeatedly being exposed to plastic pollution, we see how slow violence is taking full force and will continue to. Global Rights for Women is supporting Plastic Free July and will continue to educate the public on important issues, such as the climate crisis, that disproportionately affect women and girls around the world.
Sophia Kulow is an intern with Global Rights for Women. She is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a degree in global studies, and minors in sustainability and fashion.
Boots, A. &. (2021, December 16). Which countries produce the most plastic waste? | Atlas & Boots. Atlas & Boots. https://www.atlasandboots.com/travel-blog/which-countries-produce-the-most-plastic-waste/
The SeaCleaners | PLASTICIZER: Women, the first victims of plastic pollution. (n.d.). The SeaCleaners. https://www.theseacleaners.org/news/plasticizer-women-the-first-victims-of-plastic-pollution/
TonToTon Team. (2022). Plastic pollution as a gender issue: How women in vulnerable communities are at risk. TONTOTON. https://tontoton.com/plastic-pollution-as-a-gender-issue-how-women-in-vulnerable-communities-are-at-risk/