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Water, Dignity and Sustainable Livelihoods for Women in Kenya

by Gemma Bulos

Woman carrying water. Photograph courtesy of the author.
Woman carrying water. Photograph courtesy of the author.

“The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights,”
-Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

It is dawn in rural Kenya. A mother and daughter gather empty jerricans – 3 to 5 gallon water containers – dirty pots, and soiled clothing to begin their search for water, a chore which sometimes takes all day. Though a local vendor sells clean water, it is too expensive for this family making less than a $1 a day. After spending hours washing and drying clothes, pots, and dishes; bathing themselves, younger children, and sometimes even the animals; the mother and daughter begin their long journey home. In addition to the laundry and pots, they must also carry five gallons of water – just enough to cook and provide the family drinking water for a few days. Carrying the jerricans atop their heads, shoulders, and backs, the women strain to keep their delicate balance – careful not to lose a single drop on the rough road home. On the journey they must relieve themselves in an open field because there are no toilets.

From Africa to Asia and elsewhere around the globe, the containers, the clothes, and the scenery may be different but the experience is the same. Women carry the weight of water on their backs, literally and figuratively. Worldwide, it is estimated that on a single day women can spend over 200 billion collective hours fetching water. It is difficult to imagine how little water some families, like this one in Kenya, have available on a daily basis – less water than two flushes of our Western toilet. Consider the opportunities lost for women and girls when their day is spent on water-related chores.

Because women are often in charge of procuring water for their families and communities, they have a deep relationship with this essential resource. They know the locations of available and seasonable water sources as well as which water source is safest. Yet in many places around the world their knowledge is ignored when communities make decisions about clean water and sanitation strategies. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found “The exclusion of women from the planning of water supply and sanitation schemes is a major cause of their high rate of failure.”

Since women have the responsibility to provide family water, making sure they have access to information about proper hygiene practices and the ability to implement them is crucial to family health. When women cook, clean and provide drinking water yet are not able to practice good hygiene, the whole family is at risk.

Women challenging traditional stereotypes by building water and sanitation technologies sometimes face adversity in their communities from their husbands and male leaders. However with comprehensive training and support, if women can provide a much-needed service to their communities by introducing simple technologies and strategies, they can gain access to the decision-making table.

Women outnumber male entrepreneurs in developing economies because they face higher barriers to entry in the formal labor market and have to resort to entrepreneurship as a way out of poverty. According to multiple international micro-finance institutions, women are more likely to pay off their loans.

The United Nations Development Programme estimates that for every $1 invested in water and sanitation solutions there is a return of up to $4 in increased productivity. The World Bank estimates that with low-cost appropriate technologies, community participation, and conscientious and transparent procurement of materials, the costs of implementing water services can be reduced up to 25 percent and sanitation services up to 50 percent. “Appropriate” technologies meet the following criteria. They are durable, affordable, made out of local resources. They can be repaired and maintained by locals, and are accepted by the community.

According to field research by the Global Women’s Water Initiative (GWWI) and GWWI partner Life Bloom Services, building the capacity of women to lead and to implement viable water and sanitation solutions can provide the opportunity for women to become self-reliant and lift themselves from poverty.

Life Bloom, an organization in Kenya, provides counseling and vocational training. After taking a GWWI Women and Water training, Phinoah Mbugua, a former commercial sex worker, realized she had the skills to become a mason. After 14 years working the streets, she challenged gender stereotypes and now builds household rainwater harvesting tanks and composting toilets. She sells water filters and provides community education about proper hygiene practices. Her boss, Life Bloom’s Executive Director Catherine Wanjohi, also a GWWI graduate, was elected Chair of her local water board and manages a large water project despite having no background in water and sanitation until attending a GWWI training. Women are professionalizing services traditionally offered by men and are expanding into areas outside their own villages. These powerful leaders are constructing technologies, making water and health-related products like soap and reusable menstrual pads, and they are making money doing it.

With the growing concerns of a world plagued with social inequities and environmental degradation, for a sustainable future it is crucial that we seek guidance and leadership from our natural caretakers: women. When women have the support and resources to implement simple solutions to address the environmental conditions that create gender inequity, they have the power to transform their burdens into opportunities.

You can help! In honor of World Water Day on March 22, GWWI is launching a fundraising campaign to help African women bring clean water to their families and their villages! Visit us online here to learn more and support our mission through a donation! –Ed.

gemma bulosGemma Bulos is an award-winning social entrepreneur and the Director of the Global Women’s Water Initiative (GWWI). Prior to stepping in as Director of GWWI, Gemma was the Founder/Executive Director of A Single Drop (USA) and the Founding Director of A Single Drop for Safe Water in the Philippines, developing innovative programming that creates income-generating community-based water service organizations. For this innovation, Gemma received national and international social entrepreneur awards from Echoing Green (International, 2007), Ernst Young (Philippines 2009) and Schwab Foundation (Asia 2010), and others. Her programs also won accolades including the Tech Museum Tech Equality Award (2010) and Warriors of the UN Millennium Goals (2010), sponsored by Kodak Philippines. In 2011, she was recognized as one of the Most Influential Thought Leaders and Innovative Filipinas in the United States. She is currently a Stanford Social Entrepreneur Fellow ushering in the next generation of social innovators.

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