I have seen first-hand the horrifying and debilitating impact on women and girls of the lack of access to clean water and decent sanitation.
I work primarily in Rwanda, where women and girls rise every morning to begin the treacherous 3 to 4 hour round-trip journey down and back up steep hills to collect water from dirty creeks in the valleys. Not only does this mean young girls are missing out on a critical opportunity for education, as the author identified, but imagine the productivity gain if millions of women suddenly had an extra four hours every morning to attend to the myriad of other needs they and their family face.
In addition to the extensive health implications of drinking contaminated water, violence is often a more immediate risk facing women during this daily chore. Throughout rural areas of Rwanda, Sudan, Chad, Uganda and other regions of Africa, women risk sexual assault as they travel to remote water access points. And competition for resources further exacerbates this risk, by causing women to leave their homes in the middle of the night – sometimes at 2am or 3am – just to ensure they reach the water source first and do not have to spend subsequent hours waiting or fighting for the limited supply.
Even more horrifying is the alternative to this difficult journey. Some of the women we are working with in Rwanda, who are elderly, physically disabled or sick with HIV and too weak to make this daily journey must turn to buying water from delivery men who bring them water on bicycles. However, their inability to pay leaves them vulnerable to sexual exploitation to meet the basic needs of their family. As one woman told us: when your children are about to return from school for their primary meal of the day, and you have no water to cook rice – well, you do what you have to do to feed your children. Further, the inability to cook meals on time due to the water collection process is often a trigger of domestic violence within families where women are seen as not meeting the needs of their husbands in carrying out their primary duties.
The lack of proper sanitation facilities also often leads to violence, especially in primary and secondary schools where unisex latrines become a prime location for sexual violence against school children. Furthermore, when girls reach the age of menstruation, they often leave school permanently so as to avoid the embarrassment of utilizing unisex latrines, which also do not provide them with adequate sanitation facilities to take care of themselves.
What is remarkable is that these same women are initiating their own solutions to create safe alternatives for women and girls. Throughout Rwanda, groups of women are designing social-purpose water projects that allow them to provide water at no charge to vulnerable women, sustained by the sales of water to the remainder of the community. Other projects are educating villages about girls’ reproductive health and then working collaboratively to build girls’ latrines at schools. Global Grassroots has found that with less than $3000, a well-designed socially entrepreneurial venture can serve between 500 – 2500 members of its community. When you think about the large-scale development aid that has yet to successfully address this global issue, I propose we redirect even a small portion of this aid to support smaller-scale entrepreneurial endeavors that can begin to protect vulnerable communities immediately. These socially entrepreneurial projects – with the right training and advisory support – are demonstrating the opportunity for fostering systemic change from the grassroots level up.