Written by – Saffiyya Mohammed
On March 8th, the world recognises women. This is International Women’s Day, and the 2016 theme is #PledgeforParity.
Often, we look for inspiration outside of our local or Caribbean context, overlooking the change makers we have in our homeland.; the ones who aid in our local causes and work tirelessly to bring about awareness of environmental issues and protection of our resources.
One such woman in the environmental field is Sharda Mahabir. Sharda is the National Advisor for the Trinidad and Tobago Chapter of the Caribbean Youth Environment Network (CYEN) and the Project Manager of the ‘Adopt-A-River’ programme.
Filled with passion for the environment, she is as dedicated and motivated as she is knowledgeable about local environmental issues, especially as it relates to water conservation.
CYEN in Trinidad and Tobago chose to commemorate International Women’s Day by interviewing Sharda, with the hope that you will become inspired to play an active role in protecting the environment.
Please tell us about your academic background and what motivated you to get involved in the Environmental field?
My background is in Environmental Biology. I have always been an outdoorsy person, and I find my peace and balance from the natural environment. I got into the environmental field because of this love for the environment. I remember I used to travel to the University of the West Indies as an undergraduate student and I would pass behind the Laventille Industrial Estate and see the wastewater a different colour every day of the week. I wanted to make a change, I wanted to stop polluters from damaging the environment, from contaminating water courses.
How does the ‘Adopt a River’ programme work and what is its purpose.
The Adopt A River Programme is an initiative to partner corporate entities and community groups in actively participating in the water management process by implementing projects which will help improve watersheds and their rivers. This is how the programme works: firstly, we do public education and outreach and encourage community groups and companies to register with us. Secondly, we work with these groups to develop achievable projects to be completed in a short timeframe, like 1 or 2 years. In order to support the projects, we assist the groups in sourcing funds to ensure that the work is completed. We work with the groups throughout the duration of the projects to facilitate and ensure successful completion.
This project is clearly critical for this society. How did you become a part of it?
My involvement started in 2012 when I was asked to develop the programme for the Water and Sewage Authority (WASA). Adopt A River took me one year to write up and it was with the assistance of Denecia Grant and Wayne Clement, that the programme design was completed. With a plan of action, I then worked on testing the programme in the field. Within two years, we had projects addressing the major pollution issues in that watershed and by 2015, the pilot in Guanapo was an overwhelming success. It resulted in successes such as community water warriors and a reduction in the pollution from the landfill to the river. Since 2013, the programme has expanded to 14 others watersheds. In 2015, I became the Project Manager for the Adopt A River Implementation Unit, which was a special unit formed to manage all the projects, based on the increase in numbers.
What do you hope to achieve from the programme – professionally and personally?
Professionally and personally, I want to achieve success in all Trinidad and Tobago watersheds, as was done in Guanapo. That is, I want to work towards making polluters reduce or stop their pollution on the environment. I want better quality of water in rivers, especially for farmers who are sometimes forced to use highly contaminated waters to grow our food. Personally, I want Adopt A River to become a movement where proactive, environmentally conscious people take Trinidad and Tobago to a higher mindset and away from pelting bottles out of moving cars, throwing garbage in rivers and standing on turtles.
I was most proud of the programme when we won the Most Outstanding HSE Project from the American Chamber of Industry of Commerce. I actually cried. It was a eureka moment for me; the programme really work! I also felt that all my years of hard work had finally paid off.
The theme for International Women’s Day 2016 is #PledgeforParity. What are your thoughts on that theme ?
As a woman in the workplace, I have had to earn my respect for my work which is a lot of field work, with heavy field equipment, driving manual vans, etc. As a man, that respect comes easier because men are traditionally thought of as the ones to go out and carry out the kind of work I do. I support parity however, it is a very difficult thing to achieve because women and men are very different. Parity has to take into consideration the strengths and weaknesses of both men and women especially since women are the ones to bear children. I would like to see more parity in job opportunities as well as benefits afforded to women workers; benefits such as, one year maternity leave with half pay for 6 months or better health benefits such as, regular mammograms.
Have you encountered workplace discrimination based on your gender?
Discrimination can be based on other things such as race, religion, perceived political position or education. It does not have to be gender based alone and hence, it is hard to say whether or not there has been discrimination on this basis alone.
How do you strive for parity in your workplace/ field?
I try to treat all my colleagues with respect. I try to give everyone equal opportunity. I try to help others develop themselves by guiding them not showing them everything. You have to let people make mistakes to learn. I make it clear to my colleagues that we are working towards something bigger than a paycheck, and by bigger I mean, a better life for us and our kids in the future. I share my knowledge as best as I can. I try to understand people and their lives so I would learn how better to interact with them in order to be able to motivate them to get the work done. And most importantly, I make sure all my colleagues are well fed, which is important because hungry people are grumpy.
What keeps you motivated?
I don’t have kids of my own but I have adopted many children in my heart, like my brothers’ kids or friends’ kids. What motivates me is that I want a better future for them. I want them to be able to enjoy clean water when I am gone. I want them to enjoy bathing in a river or beach without getting tangled in garbage or getting sick. So, I do what I do for my kids. Last I checked, I have about 10 children, none of which I had to birth (better for my figure).
If you could be the opposite gender for a day, what would you do?
Well, I would drink a lot of water and pee anywhere I wanted, standing up. I would make a video about what it means to be a woman trapped in a man body. We can really only understand each other by having empathy for each other’s life experiences.
What’s your legacy?
I think my work through Adopt A River is my legacy. I hope that in years to come, youths will be talking about the passionate woman who encouraged everyone to try to live off a bucket of water a day. Or, who jumped into polluted rivers to collect a sample. The woman who in the plight to try to make environmental consciousness more commonplace, wiped away her tears, shook it off and never gave up.
My home is also my legacy. It is a model for rainwater harvesting and water reuse. All my rainwater is collected and stored in ponds for agriculture. All my wastewater flows feeds my short crops such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and patchoi. This house will be left for 6 of my kids, my nieces and nephews.
Sharda is one Caribbean woman who shows that we are strong and we are capable of doing whatsoever we put our minds to. It is my hope that young women across the region find inspiration through Caribbean women such as Sharda. Inspiration that will help us to shake up this system and build a better, more equal society for the future generations.