I am Jennifer Thaís Santos Fernandes. I am 25 years old and I am a young black woman and a waste picker. I have worked at ASCITO, a waste picker association from the city of Itabirito—a town in the Metropolitan Region of Belo Horizonte in the south-east of Brazil—since I was 16 years old.
Waste management has always been present in my life in different forms. As a child, my brothers and I used to go to the Ribeirão das Neves dump site with our mother to help with the work, because having more hands at work would decrease our chances of starving.
Even then, ASCITO was already part of the National Movement of Waste Pickers (MNCR) and therefore the waste pickers always participated in discussions and struggles for our cause. That was when I realized that I could help waste pickers by contributing to the political representation of the group. Through the bonds I developed with other waste pickers, I felt empowered.
As a result of the skills training we received, demand for and interest in gender training at MNCR began to emerge. In 2012, with support from WIEGO, As Bonitas—The Pretty Ones—was born. Bonitas refers to a slogan in Portuguese which goes: mulher bonita é mulher que luta, a pretty woman is a woman who fights. WIEGO and As Bonitas organized workshops from 2012-2020 to discuss various themes related to gender issues and in 2020, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we developed our gender action plan 2021/2023 with contributions from each of us.
With the arrival of the pandemic, my companions and I who were working with recyclables were very exposed. But the role of women leaders in MNCR did not change; they continued to have the will and determination to help the workers.
The local authorities hardly supported us in the beginning of the pandemic. They only supported us with social assistance such as food baskets. ASCITO informed the municipal Secretariat of the Environment that we could not continue selective waste collection without a dialogue to discuss concrete action, including about the adoption of health protocols. During the time that waste collection was suspended, we received support from partners and friends, as we were even at risk of starving. Because of this support we were able to distribute basic food baskets, hand sanitizer and some Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to our members.
MNCR sent part of the funding received from industry for the waste pickers’ work—as determined under Brazil’s extended producer responsibility which stipulates that industry needs to share costs of returning back materials for reuse and recycling—in advance to associations and cooperatives supervised by them. This helped waste pickers a lot. In collaboration with several other partners, MNCR started an online crowdfunding campaign, which enabled us to also provide support to waste pickers outside of the organization.
I think that the public authorities have to see us as key players in the process of transforming the future and they need to contribute to improving the infrastructure of our warehouses and to invest in training.
At MNCR, women and young people can dream and be protagonists of their dreams. The pandemic has stressed that we need each other. MNCR’s motto is love, gratitude and hope and it means always having someone by your side who you can count on. This pandemic will pass and we will be as good as can be and with very warm hearts for having been a shelter for each other.
Photo: Jennifer Thaís Santos Fernandes. Credit: Lina Mintz