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call for input | Special Procedures

Call for inputs – Gender and Toxics

Issued by

Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

Closed

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Purpose: To inform the Special Rapporteur’s 2024 thematic report to the United Nations General Assembly.

Pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 54/10, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Marcos Orellana, will present a thematic report, including recommendations, to the UN General Assembly in September 2024. His thematic report will focus, in accordance with his mandate, on exploring the application of a human rights-based approach to persons and groups that because of their gender find themselves more vulnerable to human rights violations and abuses as a result of toxic exposure.

The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 Member States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. The Special Rapporteur is part of a system of so-called UN Special Procedures, made up of independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. Their activities include undertaking country visits, sending communications to States or other actors about concerns or violations, conducting thematic reports, convening expert consultations, contributing to the development of international human rights standards, and engaging in technical cooperation. Special Rapporteurs are selected on the basis of their expertise and experience in the area of their mandate, personal integrity, independence, impartiality, and objectivity. They are not employed by the United Nations and do not receive remuneration for their work.

The mandate seeks to help States, businesses, communities, victims, and other stakeholders to adopt solutions and seek remedies with regard to harmful substances and human rights issues.

Dr. Marcos A. Orellana was appointed Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights in August 2020. He is an expert in international law and the law on human rights and the environment. His practice as legal advisor has included work with United Nations agencies, governments, and non-governmental organisations.

Background

Exposure to toxics and hazardous substances is a major and growing problem worldwide, and one that has important impacts on culture, work, income, valued nature, health across the life course, including sexual and reproductive health, and individual and community wellbeing. Harms resulting from exposure to hazardous substances is not equally distributed among people and places, however.

Women and girls exposure to chemicals and their conditions are highly affected by biological, socio-economic and gendered differences. Men and boys may also experience the consequences of exposure to toxics in a differentiated way due to biological vulnerabilities and societal or cultural expectations.  Similarly, persons of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations are often vulnerable to greater harms, and/or to specific harms both biological and for socio-economic reasons in highly gendered societies.

Importantly, biological and societally gendered vulnerabilities are magnified when they intersect with other ways people are marginalized or differentiated. For example, negative pregnancy health effects of some harmful substances are bigger among people of African descent in countries where systemic racism persists, ultimately increasing exposures, when compared to white pregnant women and girls and other pregnant people.

Distribution of chemical plants, mining, undesirable waste sites, major roadways, hazardous pesticide use, polluting industry, among others, is often disproportionately concentrated among low-income, minority and/or otherwise politically disempowered communities. Members from these communities may be at greater risk because of poorer overall health and healthcare access, including women and girls. They may also face multiple forms of pollution including exposures to industrial toxic releases, toxics at work, in poor quality housing and underserved neighborhoods, higher levels of chemicals in food and water, and other environmental justice concerns like bigger climate harms. How chronic stress, including from poverty, caste discrimination or racism, homophobia, transphobia, nationality status and/or being part of a group is interlaced with misogyny or other gendered discrimination, interact with environmental violence are important considerations.

People are also targeted as consumers of products containing toxics because of their sex and/or gender. Chemicals in menstrual products, such as bleaching chemicals, are under greater scrutiny; but only recently, in part because female sexual health can be stigmatized. Similarly environmental health experts and feminists have raised concerns about potentially harmful chemicals in vaginal douches and other personal care products especially when manufacturers use gendered and racialized shame-based advertising techniques. Beauty products containing harmful substances, for example hair straighteners containing endocrine disrupting chemicals, or skin lightening products containing mercury, may also be explicitly marketed towards women and girls from certain racial or cultural backgrounds. Societal and cultural pressure might undermine choice over whether to use these products. And low-income communities often do not have access to less toxic versions of products or may not be able to afford them.

Work is highly gendered everywhere and a major site of exposure to toxics, especially low-pay work. Some forms of work constructed predominantly as “male,” like shipbreaking in Southeast Asia, are highly toxic. Fragrances, nail polish and other beauty products often contain toxic chemicals and people working in the beauty industry, often women, are additionally exposed. People who clean offices and houses, often girls and women and people marginalized in other ways including because of their race, caste, or cultural identity, are additionally exposed to a wide range of toxics such as phthalates, butoxyethanol and triclosan associated with a range of harms such as cancer, asthma and allergies and reduced fertility and birth weight.

Women and men working in agriculture are at risk from a wide range of pesticides, many associated with harms to both female and male reproductive health, including by damaging fertility. For example, some pesticides may damage semen quality and DNA in sperm. Women have more hormonally sensitive tissues which can make female workers especially vulnerable to breast cancer causing chemicals in some pesticides.

Harms from toxics are felt in gendered ways. Some toxics, for example those found in air pollution, are associated with higher rates of some mental health conditions. In at least some places evidence suggests mental health may also be experienced in different ways by men and women. Whether an individual can be affected by, or cope with, mental and physical health conditions resulting from exposure to toxics, for example neurological harms from heavy metals such as lead, depends not only on where they live and their income, but also how they are gendered. Women are generally poorer than men, owing to financial exclusion and gender pay gaps, and they, together with people  marginalized because of their LGBTIQ+ status, may be more likely to live in poor quality housing that exposes them to toxics like lead paint, asbestos, and formaldehyde.

Unpaid or underpaid care work including looking after people in poor health or living with a disability because of toxics or harmful substances often falls on women and girls, and often those that are marginalized in other ways too. Mothering and care work which is highly gendered is just one example of care work that can be affected by toxics. For economic reasons women and other people with heavy care loads may also be less able to leave a contaminated area.

Sexual and reproductive rights are also a matter of major concern. Pregnant women, girls and other pregnant people are uniquely vulnerable to harms from toxics and harmful substance. The developing foetus is extremely sensitive, especially at certain windows of development, to a huge range of harmful substances. Toxics in air pollution, lead and other heavy metals, hazardous pesticides, toxic additives in plastics, among other hazardous substances, are linked with adverse birth outcomes such as low birth weight, preterm birth and stillbirth or miscarriages. Growing evidence indicates that exposure to various toxics increases risks for maternal health complications throughout and after pregnancy. Pregnancy is a major health event, deeply intertwined with culture and/or spirituality, and toxics and harmful substances may have detrimental impacts on lifelong health and wellbeing for the pregnant person and the newborn. Certain harms also can be carried intergenerationally.

Toxics and harmful substances can cause or contribute to other reproductive health harms ranging from male and female infertility or damage to eggs and sperm, early menarche for girls, breast cancer, and other reproductive health problems such as fibroids, for example. Recent evidence suggests a decline in sperm health has been taking place in many countries. Infertility, which may also be linked with toxics, can be a source of stigma.

Knowledge of toxics and harmful substances, including knowledge about harms to sexual health or other gendered dimensions is low. Publicizing this knowledge or uncovering the harmful effects can often be challenging and at times dangerous to those who demand it. Powerful lobbies connected to the industries try to circumvent and undermine legislation calling for greater transparency on the makeup of products and protection of those exposed to these toxic products. Being a girl or woman or from a specific gender identity group/community may create additional discriminatory barriers to being able to speak out against toxic pollution safely and effectively. Health care systems do a minimal amount of education. Clinicians and public health workers are too overstretched to provide advice on environmental determinants of health.

Science on the harms to reproductive health and rights is well ahead of government policies. Much knowledge is still tied up in the academy, including in studies that may be hard to understand, expensive or difficult to access. When some information is available, ambiguity and uncertainty are rife, and gaps in knowledge spread confusion. To take just one example, parents increasingly worry about toxic constituents in breastmilk amidst many other challenges of providing a baby with human milk.

Across the world states fail to control the production of ever-increasing amounts of toxic and hazardous chemicals or fail to adequately manage hazardous wastes and chemical stockpiles. However, worker rights, feminists, LGBTIQ+, men’s health, adolescent health, reproductive justice, and other advocates are increasingly engaging with toxics-related problems, and are demanding better protections for health, including at especially vulnerable life stages such as pregnancy, including the developing foetus, adolescence, and childhood.

Objectives

The upcoming report on Gender and Toxics aims to examine and enable the application of a human rights-based approach to countless persons and groups that may find themselves in vulnerable situations because of their gender, in respect of toxic exposures. This includes identifying human rights violations and abuses in respect of gender and toxics, recognizing root causes of discrimination and gendered toxic impacts, strengthening tools for implementing the right to a healthy environment in this regard, improving policies for the realization of the rights to information and public participation, and advancing corporate responsibilities with respect to toxics and human rights.

The report will identify gaps and shortcomings, in relation to which the Special Rapporteur would seek to make constructive and concrete recommendations. The report will also explore good practices in tackling the disproportionate toxic impacts imposed on persons and groups because of their gender.

Other objectives of this report include:

  • Supporting member states to improve awareness and focus on the intersection of gender and health harms from toxics and harmful substances;
  • Investigate where states lack adequate regulations in this regard, and where public health policies could be improved;
  • Removing discriminatory and other barriers to access to justice and effective remedies;
  • Supporting civil society, including human rights defenders and organizations working on the rights of women and girls, LGBTIQ+ people, and sexual and reproductive health and rights movements in better articulating ways in which their goals necessitate a healthy environment.

Key questions and types of input/comments sought

The Special Rapporteur would like to invite all interested individuals and organizations working on issues related to how toxics harm the health, social, cultural, and/or economic wellbeing of individuals and communities in gendered ways, to provide input for the preparation of his thematic report. The Special Rapporteur hopes to hear from worker rights, housing rights, women’s rights, child rights, young people’s rights, LGBTIQ+ rights, environmental justice organizations, as well as others. Inputs can be both country-specific or of a general nature. Information from the academy is welcome, as is information generated by communities, or community-based organizations.

Input may contain information on the following subjects, among others:

  • Are toxics and harmful substances, including at work, in or near communities or in the home, harming the health and/or wellbeing of women, girls, men and boys and other people in gendered ways? Health impacts could be on fertility, pregnancy health, timing of menarche and menopause, fibroids, sperm quality, mental health, obesity, cancers, among others. Wellbeing could include economic or cultural factors, for example.
  • Examples of how governments have increased gendered harms of toxics and harmful substances by failing to meet their human rights obligations.
  • If and how gender creates greater exposure or vulnerability to toxics or harmful substances, perhaps because of gendered restrictions access to protections like political power, regulations, safer work, or education/information (because of forced or early marriage or restrictions on girl child education, for example).
  • Have failures to include environmental health in sexual and reproductive health education at schools and in public health eroded progress on gendered harms of toxics and harmful substances and the right to information and quality education? If so, how?
  • Is uncertainty about potential harms or a lack of information about the impacts of a particular industry or producer of toxics or harmful substances causing harms? If so, how?
  • Is a lack of (scientific or community-created) information, generally and in specific locations, holding back progress in protecting people from gendered harms from toxics or harmful substances? If so, how?
  • Are there examples of how the status of individuals of particular assigned or identified gender intersect with other factors such as income, race, caste, immigration, Indigenous status, migratory status, nationality, membership of a minority group among others, may make them more vulnerable to toxics and harmful substances?
  • Is the climate crisis worsening gendered harms from toxics and harmful substances? If so, how?
  • Is industry action, such as  advertising campaigns, lobbying, or corruption worsening gendered harms from toxics and harmful substances? If so, how?
  • Is activism and investigative journalism regarding the harmful toxic makeup of products gendered? How may have the consequences of involvement in activism and investigative journalism differed for men and boys, women and girls or one’s gender identity or sexual orientation?
  • How have retrogression or backlashes on the rights of women and girls and the rights of LGBTIQ+ people at national, regional and international levels, impacted the gendered harms from toxics?
  • Examples of how community-based organizations or solidarity movements have successfully worked to reduce gendered harms from toxics or harmful substances, through building power, legislation, pressure on companies or community education, for example.
  • Examples of how governments have addressed gendered harms of toxics and harmful substances, through regulations, training of medical and/or other public health practitioners or grantmaking, for example.

Reports, academic studies, and other types of background materials can be attached as an annex to the input.

How inputs will be used

All inputs will be treated to inform the preparation of the thematic report of the Special Rapporteur to the Human Rights Council.

If not indicated to the contrary your input will be published on the website of the Special Rapporteur. If you would like your written input or any other information NOT to be published on the website of the Special Rapporteur, please explicitly indicate this in your input.

Inputs Received

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