Opinion: Fixing water fixes gender parity

Rani Barukaum conducts water quality tests and educates her community on the relationship between safe water and health. Photo by: Suzanne Lee

A decade ago, Rani Barukaum’s village, in the South Indian state of Telangana, had contaminated water. Boiling or filtering failed to solve the entire problem, as the water had unsafe levels of fluoride. Rani had seen the effect on her two young children, who frequently fell ill. But today’s reality in Rani’s village, with a water treatment facility, is much different.

The challenges of safe water are nothing new to women around the world, particularly those in low- and middle-income countries. Women and girls disproportionately bear the burden of caring for their families and collecting water. In households without access to water on premises, women are responsible for 80 percent of water collection. Globally, women spend 200 million hours every day collecting water. 

Globally women spend 200 million hours every day collecting water.

UNICEF

This burden impacts family life, child care, and income-generating activities, “as well as time for social or community activities [for women] to improve their status,” according to the Asian Development Bank. This ultimately affects prospects for women’s income and opportunity, with a knock-on effect for the larger societal good, including a country’s gross domestic product — particularly in developing countries where gender gaps are higher. Indeed, experts estimate that a lack of readily accessible clean water causes annual economic losses of up to 7 percent of GDP in some countries. 

Global development discourse in general, and media attention in particular, have focused on how a more gender-balanced world enables economies and communities to thrive. Gender balance means parity across education, health, economic, and political systems. Gender gaps exist globally, with an average gender gap of 32 percent across these four dimensions, and we see the greatest disparity or gap in the areas of political empowerment — 78 percent — and economic participation — 41 percent — according to the World Economic Forum’s gender gap report.

Expanding safe water and women’s participation in its provision through small water enterprises — businesses that provide safe, reliable, affordable water to communities in need — increases economic opportunity for women, benefits communities, and contributes to the health and well-being of families.

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When affordable and safe water supply exists in a community, women and girls have more time to engage in other activities, including education and employment. It opens avenues for greater income generation and a better quality of life, including better health and nutrition.

We have seen the results in the 31 communities found in Telangana’s Medak district. It took an innovative corporate social responsibility initiative from Honeywell, combined with support from the proactive district administration of Telangana, to enable women to be in charge of their own access to safe, affordable water.

When Safe Water Network India set up an iJal water station in Rani’s village, Rani ardently began promoting the benefits of safe water to the community, educating the community on the relationship between safe water and the reduction of jaundice, typhoid, fluorosis, and other water-related diseases.

Regular consumers at water stations run by self-help groups — such as the one Rani leads — reported spending less on medical expenses, overall improved health, more income saved for the family, improved quality of family life, more time for other household activities, improved financial situation at home, and improved life as a woman and in the roles played.

When women such as Rani are engaged in the actual provision of safe water, the results are further amplified — with economic and societal benefits to families and communities. Our experience with sustainable small water enterprises shows engaging women in the provision of safe water results in multiple economic and societal benefits to families and communities.

Although the socioeconomic aspects and the pathway to change are very different, a comparison can be drawn with the microfinance industry, where many have set out to solve a problem that primarily impacts women: Only 37 percent of women, versus 46 percent of men, have access to formal financial services.

The solution isn’t always simple, and along with the potential benefits, there are also challenges. Small water enterprises can play a significant role in improving women’s lives, but despite the encouraging results of the Medak initiative — and other similar initiatives where women entrepreneurs and self-help groups are running small water enterprises — women have not been sufficiently “mainstreamed” in the water sector.

We know that women-owned SMEs face unique and significant hurdles in starting and growing their businesses across much of the world. Women are often shut out by financial institutions. Unfavorable business and regulatory environments, along with a lack of networks, knowledge, and links to high-value markets, further constrain female entrepreneurship.

More evidence is needed to understand the difficulties and challenges that women face with small water enterprises. From Safe Water Network’s experience in the field, we know that these include cultural constraints, lack of role models, limited access to information and resources, and a lack of training and technical skills. Prioritizing this effort should help develop solutions that will facilitate women’s participation in the water sector.

Like other successful gender initiatives, a number of common factors have proven important for their success. Gender initiatives need to tackle deep-rooted attitudes and behavior, and achieve scale, while transforming one mind at a time. Successful programs that address gender issues work holistically and take on multiple barriers simultaneously. They work with women as partners in diagnosing problems and finding solutions, and they engage the right stakeholders, including husbands, boys, and community elders.

Today, there are an estimated 2.1 billion people who lack access to safe water and have the ability to pay for safe water themselves without subsidies and could, therefore, be served through small water enterprises. Gender mainstreaming in the water sector could help to fix water issues and address the lack of gender parity. Empowering women to participate requires specific actions to reform policy, build capacity, and fund these initiatives.

We call on all stakeholders, and particularly policy makers, governments, multilaterals, and other funders to invest in women such as Rani by addressing the societal reforms needed — investing in training and capacity-building programs for women, providing equal access to resources, and supporting the continued building of an evidence base to look at water more directly and closely through the gender lens.

When such actions are taken, we stand to realize an equitable solution to one of the most pressing global issues of our time.

About the authors

  • Amanda gimble

    Amanda Gimble

    Amanda Gimble is senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Safe Water Network, where she leads efforts to develop the evidence base and engage sector stakeholders to scale up small water enterprises. She brings over a decade of experience in the social enterprise sector, particularly in India and Ghana, where she works to drive systemic change through collaborative partnerships. Previously, she was first vice president and co-head of corporate strategy at Merrill Lynch. She holds an MBA from Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.
  • Venky raghavendra

    Venkatesh Raghavendra

    Venkatesh "Venky" Raghavendra is vice president of advancement at Safe Water Network, where he creates partnership opportunities with high net-worth individuals and corporations. Prior to this, he worked with Ashoka: Innovators for the Public and as chief philanthropy officer at the American India Foundation. He brings more than three decades of philanthropy and social entrepreneurship experience, and both teaches and speaks on social entrepreneurship and innovation. Venky is also a trainer and advisor to the government of India.