How innovation can reduce women's 'time poverty'

Every day, women in the developing world spend hours collecting water. Innovations like water rollers can reduce their burden and free up time for them to study, do business or work in the home, says Sanitha Pathiyanthara. Photo by: Ida Veileborg/UNOPS

One of my colleagues recently mentioned that gender mainstreaming is like people saying they need to go to the gym but very few end up doing it. And I agree. Everyone agrees on its importance, and it sounds easy to do, but rarely is it easy to implement.

There are many barriers to making sure development interventions are gender-sensitive and one of the major reasons why women and girls are held back is because of “time poverty.” Globally, every day, women spend an average of 6 hours just collecting water, looking for sanitary facilities, collecting firewood and so on. While there are many pockets of innovation around the world addressing problems and making their lives easier, the pace of uptake is relatively slow.

Start at the grassroots level

Smart technologies and innovative approaches, while building basic infrastructure, can reduce time poverty significantly, especially the burden on women and girls. Sometimes these solutions can be simple and easy to apply, for instance, in a water supply project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by the United Nations Office for Project Services in South Sudan, introducing longer handles for the water pumps made it easier for women, boys and girls to use them more efficiently, thus saving time. Similarly, there are innovative examples such as the Wello Water Wheel which can reduce the burden on collecting and transporting water.

But such examples are not easily adopted and replicated. One of the reasons is that the laws of market forces don’t work in the developing world as straight-forwardly as they do in the developed world, with poverty making the cost recovery of research and development efforts seemingly unlikely.  It is in this space, where innovations can be made cost-effective to both produce and to purchase, that development agencies have a role to play.

The need for better collaboration

Civil society and the private sector need to introduce the know-how, technology, finance mechanisms, entrepreneurship and ultimately connect communities with the right partnerships. How many leading technical universities are solving day-to-day problems in novel partnerships?

Engineering, research and development initiatives, especially in the developed world, need to be incentivized to prioritize the basic needs of the developing world. These should promote efforts to find ways to allow women and girls to focus more on earning, learning and growing instead of spending their time looking for clean water to drink, or in kitchens cooking with inefficient stoves jeopardizing their health.

While there are many forward-thinking organizations that are working closely with academia and research institutes to solve developing-world problems using developed-world technologies, it’s still not a priority nor a mainstream conversation.

Innovation has to be sustainable

One of the dangers of a project-based development approach is that implementing agencies leave at some point. If the interventions are not designed correctly, the benefits will not be sustainable in the long run. Examples such as village based e-learning initiatives may sound cutting-edge but if the country has poor Internet connectivity or an irregular power supply, it’s only a matter of time before people disengage.

The solution needs to be tailored to the local context and what may work well in Myanmar will not necessarily work in Haiti.

The development community can make a big difference when designing interventions to make sure they remain financially viable and sustainable even when the project ends. They can also build and share knowledge globally to enable initiatives to be replicated and scaled up for specific contexts.

More investments needed for basic infrastructure

At the current rate, it is likely to take another 70 years before all girls and boys have access to primary schools, another 62 years to meet the global sanitation targets and in sub-Saharan Africa, another 50 years before water and energy becomes available to all. More aid, research and investment needs to be focused on building gender-sensitive infrastructure for water, sanitation, roads, schools and hospitals. Within the sectors, innovative, user-friendly measures need to be promoted.

In a roads construction project in the Democratic Republic of Congo funded by the U.K. Department for International Development and implemented by UNOPS, women were taught how to make biomass briquettes and biomass stoves and to run this as a business. In addition to being environmentally friendly and smokeless, this initiative also helped them to become entrepreneurs.

Things like cycles, solar lanterns, water filters, chalk and slate may sound boring from an innovation point of view, but sometimes the simplest thing may be the best solution. More than innovation, it is the sustainability of the innovation which is critical to those in need.

Perhaps the true innovation needed is less the application of a new technology and more for us in the development community to better understand both the needs of beneficiary communities as well as how to increase their capacity to take ownership of these interventions.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

About the author

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    Sanitha Pathiyanthara

    Sanitha Pathiyanthara is a Project Manager with United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). She is leading the gender mainstreaming efforts within UNOPS for its projects. She is the lead author of UNOPS gender mainstreaming toolkit and worked in various infrastructure projects in Afghanistan with United Nations and in India in private sector. She holds a Masters in Business Administration and studied advanced project management from Stanford University.