Let me tell you about an extraordinary Rwandan woman and water change agent, Seraphine Hacimana, a 39 year-old mother of seven children, who I first met in 2007. Seraphine first became aware of water issues when working on her father’s farm and fetching water as a child. When she later married, she moved to the rural village of Gahanga, where she experienced first-hand the 3-4 hour walk women have to make down a hill to collect water from a contaminated, hand-dug well. As with other such water holes that serve thousands in the surrounding area, it was not uncommon for the women to wait in line for hours, and occasionally fights would break out between them. Some would even wake in the middle of the night to get to the water source first, before it got too crowded, the water murky with activity. Walking alone in the dark, these women would face the risk of attack or sexual assault. For others, the long and grueling return hike could further serve as a trigger for domestic violence, as their husbands waited angrily for the water they needed to bathe or for tea.
But what Seraphine was most concerned about were the women for whom this journey was almost impossible. The women who were blind, pregnant, elderly, physically disabled or HIV + and too weak to carry large jerry cans back up the hill each day faced two impossible choices: if she had children, she could keep them home from school to manage the task or she could pay for water to be delivered by a man on a bicycle. Most women know how important it is to keep their kids in school. And the latter is only an option if you can afford to pay. One woman told us on condition of anonymity: “If your children are coming home from school and you need water to cook them rice and beans, you do what you have to do for that water.” Women throughout Seraphine’s community were left with no choice other than to trade sex for the water they needed each day.
Seraphine recruited a team of 18 other women, who now call themselves Abanyamurava or “Hard Workers”, to design their own water solution. Of the team of 19 women, only seven are actually literate, and their leader, Seraphine, only has a first-grade education. With a little social entrepreneurship training and a small $2600 grant (provided by my organization, Global Grassroots), Hard Workers embarked upon a project to install two large water tanks right in the middle of their village. The venture collects rainwater off the roof of a church during the rainy season and orders water delivery by truck during the dry season. They purify and then sell water to those who can afford to pay, so that they may give water away for free to vulnerable women. Now in their third year of sustainable operations, the project is serving 800-1000 people daily, and has eliminated sexual exploitation for water in their community. With their proceeds, they have further been able to buy health insurance for women, pay school fees for local orphans, ensure girls stay in school, combat water-borne disease and even reduce incidents of domestic violence. The women even guard the tank themselves, taking shifts in twos each night, sleeping beside the tank to ensure no one steals their water. The project has become such a recognized value to the community that now, when a woman gets ill and cannot cover her shift, sometimes her husband will offer to do it for her.
Their influence is gaining. Hard Workers’ project has been visited by women on the other side of the country, via a three-hour bus ride, to see how rural, uneducated women were able to launch their own water venture. Seraphine has been invited to speak at both local meetings and on the radio about water issues. This year, Hard Workers is expanding to a second site to serve another 800-1000 people, and men have since asked to join the venture. These amazing women change agents, some even grandmothers in their late 70s, are now seen as the first to bring development to their community.
I have seen time and time again, in my work at Global Grassroots, that women are experts in their own experiences and know exactly what they need to do advance their lives. They have viable solutions to those critical issues, though they also have the least access to the education, skills and resources necessary to advance their own ideas. The issue of sexual exploitation for water is almost invisible to outsiders, so it is critical that we trust local women’s ability to identify their own priorities, and then serve as their partners while they take the lead.
I share this story for three reasons. First, in addition to microcredit for women-run businesses, we also need more resources for micro-social enterprise, or women-operated non-profits. As Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn proclaimed in their best-selling work Half the Sky, grassroots women are the solution. Not only can education and economic empowerment enable women to find their voice and achieve gender equality, but facilitating their work as change agents ensures they will build civil society, advance human rights and lead systemic social change too. These grassroots women are radical innovators within their local or cultural context, even if their ideas are not always new in a global context. Unfortunately, the larger social entrepreneurship arena does not always recognize these women as social entrepreneurs. Similarly, the international development world does not often trust that local women have the ideas or know-how to advance change themselves, thus investment in and the participation of women at the grassroots level is minimized. I firmly believe a woman with the courage, resources and skills to advance her own solution is the greatest lever for social change in the developing world.
Second, when women have the opportunity to serve as change agents, it facilitates healing from the wounds of war and conflict. In Rwanda, DR Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries where sexual violence was used as a tool of war, women experienced not only a terrifying physical violation, but a failure of their community to protect them. Many of these women now not only struggle with significant post-traumatic stress, but they feel utterly devalued by society. At the same time, they are most often tasked with rebuilding civil society post-conflict. Experiencing the success of advancing social change locally supports a woman’s sense of agency, sovereignty, dignity and power in her own life and her community. Not only can she transform the social issues she faces (often silently), but she can also come to see that she is valued by society and has something to offer. “Restoring the connection between survivors and their community” is one of three primary phases of the trauma healing process, documented in Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, and an integral component of our work fusing personal transformation and social change.
Finally, as we can see in Seraphine’s story, water access is one of the most critical issues facing women throughout the developing world. Ensuring women have control of and affordable access to clean water allows girls to stay in school, decreases incidents of violence, combats water-born disease, increases women’s productivity by freeing up a significant portion of each day, prevents sexual exploitation for basic needs, enables women’s change leadership and provides a means for alleviating poverty through social micro-enterprise. Not only should clean water access be a right of every human being, but clean water ventures are an opportunity for women to ensure their equality and security in several other spheres as well.
Grassroots communities throughout the developing world, especially across Africa, are now joining this new “women for water” and “water for women” movement. Encouraged, Seraphine and I await the day, where every woman globally may sip a cool, clear drink of water in safety and solidarity together.
To listen to Seraphine, who was just nominated for a CNN Hero Award, talk about water and to learn more about her work, go here: