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Change Agent Profile: Perpétue, People of Love

March 31, 2011 by admin

by Christina Hueschen

On her family plot in Rwanda’s Kamonyi District, Perpétue grows cassava, soy, bananas, beans, sweet potato, and mangos. And papaya – lots of papaya. Each morning she rises, washes her face, checks on her animals, cleans her house, grabs a hoe, and heads out to the fields.

Perpétue’s days are jam-packed with farming and domestic work. “When I have a little free time,” she adds, “I practice the consciousness practices that I learned from Global Grassroots’ training, and I help my grandchildren with those practices. They like most to lie down and practice breathing, but their second favorite is stretching their arms as part of yoga.”

Perpétue lost her husband years ago, but she has seven children, many of whom have families of their own. She looks the part of a grandmother: the smile creases around her eyes and the dusting of moles across her cheeks are clues to her cheerful warmth. Her most important piece of advice for a child or grandchild: “To be honest – using truth in anything, in whatever she does.”

Perpétue has thick, powerful hands, which she crosses in her lap – left clasped over right wrist – whenever seated. She believes in hard work. Unless she is upset about something in particular, she enjoys her daily labors. “[As long as] there is nothing hurting my heart and making me feel bad, I just feel good about any task.”

Last year, Perpétue took on a big, new task. As one of the team leaders of People of Love, Perpétue is working to bring a clean water access point to her community in Kamonyi. Water access – supplemented by the team’s educational campaigns on gender-based violence law, gender equality, and nutrition – will reduce domestic violence, keep more girls in school, promote gender-equal families, and increase female participation in community affairs and development.

Giving up her usual daily tasks to work with People of Love has been tougher than Perpétue anticipated. When the team gathers to work on the project, they are neglecting their responsibilities at home and in the fields. “We are going back home without any income… Nothing replaces our time.” But the sacrifice is worth it to Perpétue. She explains that she and her team are looking forward. “We believe in many changes in the future. That’s why we are still motivated. Also we’ve learned a lot from Global Grassroots.” Perpétue smiles. “We want to use those skills to change the future.”

Her fellow community members share her hopeful vision: irrigated green vegetables growing on the mountainside, not just in the valley, and even in the dry season; no more malnutrition; enough produce to sell some extra at the market. Everyone is happy about the water project, and that fills Perpétue with joy. Even the kids are talking about it; they will no longer have to miss mornings at school to trek down into the valley to collect water.

“We realized that if we have water, the children can attend school on time,” Perpétue says. “And we realized that the biggest problem in our community that women face is not having access to clean water.” She explains that currently, water scarcity is a trigger for gender-based violence in her community, where women spend a huge portion of their time and labor fetching water. “Women face domestic violence because they didn’t accomplish their responsibilities, their tasks, at home. Women are staying behind in development. They don’t have opportunity to participate… in whatever things are happening in their society or their umudugudu or their community. They feel like they have to spend all their time on water – they are late in anything – because of the scarcity of water.”

A clean water access point will change Perpétue’s own life in many ways. She will be able to improve her hygiene by washing her body and clothes regularly. Her cows will get water more than once a week. She will grow crops in the dry season. “I will be able to do things quickly,” she explains, “because water is the main trouble point for everything happening in farming.”

But mostly, Perpétue talks about the impact of water access on the collective “we” – the women of her community. ‘We’ will have the opportunity to participate in local assembly meetings. ‘We’ will no longer suffer from miscarriages during the uphill struggle from valley wells or streams. “Everything I mentioned – the struggles women face that I mentioned above – will be changed in the future.”

Perpétue is a change agent with a resolute belief in her theory for social progress: “if we have water, we can remove many obstacles that stand in the way of women and allow us to move forward to where we want to be.”

Teaching Basic English to Vulnerable Women

March 24, 2011 by Caitlin

On Fridays we explain independent clauses, but on Mondays and Thursdays we taught (until recently) an entirely different kind of English class.  We traveled to Gisozi, the site of one GG project started by Evariste in 2008.  The Community Vocational Training School teaches tailoring to vulnerable women (widows, orphans, and prostitutes), and in October we attended the graduation of this year’s class of 24 women, many of whom are using this marketable skill to leave prostitution or free themselves from dependence on an abusive husband.  At the reception, we were drinking Fanta and eating bread when some of the women asked Evariste if we could teach them English.

Rwandans celebrate most occassions (at least weddings, graduations, & birthdays in our experience) by sharing Fanta and some bread. On the left is Evariste, who founded CVTS after being trained by GG and receiving seed-funding for the project. On the right is our Country Director Marlene, and the far left is a graduate who no one realized sneaked into the picture :) 


A few days later, Christina and I said yes.  Although we receive at least two requests per day for English lessons (taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and teammates are all eager to keep pace after the country’s 2008 shift from French to English), we decided that this class fit with our project because it could improve the graduates’ employability.  If a tailor can speak enough English to take measurements of and negotiate with tourists and ex-pats, she or he will be quite popular.  (Everyone knows Josephine, the go-to English-speaker in our market.)  So, we agreed to a month-long class, thinking that was enough time to teach some occupational English.

Teaching women who have never been to school is not as difficult as I anticipated.  It took a long time for the one or two illiterate girls to copy from the board, letter by letter, and the general pace was pretty slow, but most of them grasped the concepts the first time around.  They are very eager learners.  They took notes on everything, and somehow, between sewing, cooking, and caring for their families, they always found time to do the homework.  No one complained about writing on their laps while perched on wooden stools and chairs that collapse without warning.  For good lighting, they dragged the one-legged blackboard out onto the front porch of the school.  We hadn’t quite figured out yet how to prop it up and on the first day of school, it may or may not have careened forward onto me mid-explanation of ‘I am’.  A blackboard falling from the sky was a first in all my school experience, but some things are apparently international: the know-it-alls sit in front, the shy ones never raise their hands, and there was a class clown, Josiane.  Looking back, I’m impressed she let that blackboard incident slide… by the end all someone has to do was accidentally say “I am a boy,” and she had the female offender collapsed in giggles.  The laughter would die down until someone piped up, “Are you a boy?” and we all deteriorated again.  Our classroom management skills may be lacking, but it’s ok—they’d mastered interrogatives!

We teach an English class twice per week to vulnerable women who learned to sew as a way to a better life. With basic English, they will (hopefully!) get more clients and have a better chance of landing a steady job with a cooperative. Our classroom was outside on the porch of the sewing school, since there is no electricity inside. The blackboard is missing a leg, chairs often collapse, and neighborhood children eavedrop outside. 

Water and Women’s Disempowerment

March 21, 2011 by Christina

Global Grassroots works with several teams of change agents here in Rwanda who fight for women’s rights, security, and health with one crucial tool: providing safe, closer access to clean water.

The relationship between clean water and health is straightforward, considering the multitude of water-borne diseases found in much of the world.  The impact of a safe, closer access point on women’s security is equally clear when one remembers the dark, early morning hours that women spend in the process of collection and when one listens to stories of sexual assault faced on this journey.  But the link between water scarcity and women’s disempowerment is even more fundamental.  Perhaps that is precisely why it is so often overlooked.

Water is humanity’s most essential need, and access to safe water is one of the greatest challenges faced by the developing world.  In many societies, the consuming struggle to provide, every day, a community’s primary life need – water – falls to the female sex.  The result is gender imbalance on a massive scale.  When a community saddles one gender with a tremendous burden that is both laborious and domestic, those two adjectives come to define how both men and women perceive a woman’s sphere and duty.  That discrimination is pervasive; it disempowers women as citizens and as individual minds.

When the task of water provision is perceived by women and men as a female responsibility, that assumption defines gender roles in a community.  Water is a part of everything domestic: drinking, bathing, cooking vegetables and grains, growing gardens that prevent malnutrition disorders in children, washing clothes, keeping a home clean, and preventing disease.  A woman who chooses to attend an evening local council meeting “should” be walking hours down the mountain to a stream with her female neighbors to provide for her family.  Water “should” be the first thing on her mind when she wakes up and when she goes to sleep.  Water is what she must worry about when she considers her children’s health or her relationship with her husband, who may strike her if he comes home to a late or uncooked meal, unwashed clothes, or empty jerry cans when he wanted a bath.  In theory, therefore, a woman’s role is defined as domestic.  But her domestic role is not only the result of theoretical conceptions of duty; it is also established by example.  It is difficult for her and for her community to be open to women’s civil participation or partnership in decision-making when, in practice, she has always needed to spend six hours a day fetching water.

Water can never be plentiful enough, which means that a woman’s responsibilities are by definition never completed.  Her time is, without exception, never truly her own.  Her participation in development, in community affairs, or in building or re-building outside of her individual home, is therefore impossible.  She is disempowered by her community’s greatest act of discrimination: the designation of its most essential daily struggle to the female sex.

What’s an Indefinite Article, again?

March 16, 2011 by Caitlin

Part of our project involves teaching English to the Global Grassroots staff.  Every Friday morning from 9-11:30, we convert our living room into a makeshift classroom where we explain the finer points of English to Marlene, Daphne, and Daniel.  Or try to.  I’ve been speaking this lovely language of ours for 23 years, but I have no idea why I say, “I will raft the Nile.” but not, “Last weekend I swam in the Lake Muhazi.”  I live by Lake Erie, Christina lives by the Pacific Ocean, on the planet Earth. Whyyyyy?

“Sustainability” was the first word of our fellowship proposal titles, and we’re teaching these classes to make Global Grassroots’ work sustainable.  Ideally, someday in the future, the Rwandan staff will write their own grant proposals to international foundations (or even future Rwandan foundations!).  Better yet, they will fundraise from Rwandans themselves, just like right now we fundraise from Americans.  Gretchen, the founder, talks about our ‘exit strategy’ because Rwandans should build Rwanda.  As a Rwandan friend put it, they just need help right now from America, the UK, etc. to jump-start their development.  And part of that help includes teaching English, the language of global communication, according to Rwandans.

So, we continue editing translations, clarifying the difference between effect and impact, and explaining why we use semi-colons.  They ask questions like “When do you say ‘think of’ versus ‘think about’?” and I admit I have no idea.  Christina and I have no formal ESL training and do not pretend for a second that we are qualified to teach.  It doesn’t seem to matter to our staff.  They show up every Friday and pour over exercises we’ve designed based on a few textbooks and ESL websites.  They wait patiently while Christina and I debate whether you ALWAYS need a comma before which… I feel like I should know this stuff. While they are eagerly perfecting their third language (Kinyarwanda, French & English), we’re slowing learning about our first.

Every Friday from 9-11, the GG Country Director and two interns (one was missing this week) come to our house to refine their English.

When a Ugandan woman offered me her child

March 12, 2011 by Caitlin

This is a post I wrote back when we went to Uganda, but never got around to putting it up!

“Husbands,” she said. “That is our biggest problem.” They give their wives a meager allowance, beat them when there isn’t enough food, and beat them again when they ask for money to buy more food. An Acholi woman recently described this cycle when we attended a meeting of her women’s association under a tree in Lira, Uganda. In Pader and Kitgum – towns further north and more affected by the war – women complain of HIV contracted through rape by the rebel army, the struggle to feed their illegitimate children, and the stigmatization they face from families who feel angry that their daughter served the rebel cause, even if she was abducted and forced to kill or be killed.*

“Can you give us money for school fees?” they asked us. “We have all taken in orphans, but we can’t afford to pay their school fees.” Christina and I explained the Global Grassroots model of giving money to support sustainable social ventures instead of individuals; in other words, no hand-outs. But they really wanted a donation. We’d been warned about this ‘Dependency Syndrome’ in the north: after living in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps where their every need was provided for by NGOs and there was no real need to work, some people are struggling to adjust back to normal society.

“We try to hold a training and I’m in the middle of introducing myself when someone says, “What are you giving us? Food? Money?’ “No, I’m giving you training’”, explained an NGO leader in Kampala, betraying her frustration. When the women in Lira tried another tactic and asked me to buy an overpriced, unattractive and unfinished pot, I stared at the lumpy clay and sloppy silver paint and tried to remember that some of them had probably lived over 20 years in the camps. They knew life could be sustained entirely by foreigners. I didn’t want to think about their children who were born in the camps and denied the experience of witnessing people working to support their families.

“What would I do with a pot like this?” I tried logic.
“Plant something.”
“How will I get it back to Kigali? It’s bigger than that child!” I tried logic with a bit of humor.
“Carry it.”
“It’s too big! And I don’t really like the color. If I take this pot now, you will find it on the side of the road in two kilometers.” I was straightforward, and they laughed again, finally accepting defeat.  We continued talking: about the war, the poor planting weather and finally our social change model and the conditions of women in Rwanda.  Two women, Josephine and Betty, spoke directly to us in English, indicating a decent education.  We acquiesced their requests for photos and stood up to go. But they couldn’t help one more appeal.

“Please, can you help us pay school fees? Or do you know a donor?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
A small boy, breast-feeding from one of the widows, was thrust towards me. “Will you take the child?”
I smiled. “Well, it’s either the pot or the child, choose one!”
They laughed. “The child! The child!” We all laughed, somewhat anxiously.

The next day, typing reports in a coffee shop in Kampala, my phone rang. “Hello?” It was Josephine, one of the English-speaking widows from Lira. She had bought credit for her pay-as-you-go cell phone to call me and wish us a safe journey to Rwanda.

“And tell the Rwandan women we say hi! Please send them our best wishes.”  Mixed in with their offers of pots and orphans and the undeniable burdens carried by women after the war was an interest in a sort of cross-cultural friendship. They were calling me because they felt a sort of kinship with other female victims of war. Or, depending how cynical I’ve become, just because they wanted to practice their English.
*Visit this link for more information about the LRA’s war in Northern Uganda. http://www2.invisiblechildren.com/history-of-the-war

One of the women we met in Lira, Uganda. Many of the women adopted orphans after the war and have children of their own, and they struggle to pay school tuition for all of them. I'm not completely sure, but I think I might have been able to take this child home...

Uganda: Snapshots

March 9, 2011 by Christina

We covered a lot of ground in Uganda: Entebbe, the Ssese Islands, Kampala, Jinja… then up north: Gulu, Kitgum, Pader, Lira.  We met with two dozen Ugandan individuals and organizations involved in social entrepreneurship, women’s empowerment, or trauma healing.  The following are visual glimpses of a few of the organizations we met and a few of the places and people that made us marvel.

Kalangala, on the Ssese Islands. The Ssese Health Effort for Development (SHED) advocates for the most vulnerable members of the islands' population. Their current focus is on economic empowerment of marginalized or HIV+ women. SHED were amazing hosts, and Caitlin and I loved our time in this beautiful environment, learning about SHED's tremendous diversity of initiatives.

SHED helped build the fish-drying racks in this fishing community. The racks now belong to a group of community women identified by local leaders as particularly vulnerable.

Rapids on the Nile! Near Lake Victoria, the Nile's source. This photo comes nowhere close to conveying the real violence, power, and size of the river.

The Nile at sunset near Jinja, Uganda.

Gulu town at sunset. The round, thatched homes are characteristic of the northern region/"Acholi Land." During the many years when this region was ravaged by the LRA, masses of "night commuters" (rural children afraid of abduction into Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army of child soldiers) slept on these "urban," slightly safer streets every night.

Hearts with a Safe Harbor works with at-risk youth in Gulu District. Here, one youth group performs a traditional Ugandan dance.

Another youth group dances! Drummers are just out of sight.

A home in Kitgum, another recovering region of the north. This morning, a women's group that is part of the grassroots organization Live Again is learning to build fuel-efficient stoves from termite mud and sawdust. The cost of firewood is prohibitively high in this area. The group plans to share their new knowledge with several of the other Live Again groups, who will in turn teach women in their communities.

This "self-help" group of women is supported by CRO (Child Restoration Outreach) of Lira. Members contribute a very small amount of money each week that, when pooled, provides one or two women the capital to start a small business or other economic venture. Next week, it's someone else's turn. The women pay back the loans after a month with interest, so the group's collective capital continues to grow. Some women's groups take on social initiatives, too, like combating the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS victims.


Our friend and driver in the north, Joseph, stops to buy some chickens on a roadside in Lira, northern Uganda.

A dormitory at the Pader Girls Academy. Pader District was horribly affected by the north's decades of civil war. Pader Girls Academy provides a high school education or vocational training in tailoring or catering to girls whose schooling was disrupted by the war. Most students fall in these categories: teenage mothers, orphans, child heads of families, and formerly abducted girls who were given to Kony's soldiers as trophy "wives."

Happy International Women’s Day! The 100th Anniversary

March 8, 2011 by Caitlin

In 1910, the First International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen created International Women’s Day, which wasn’t designated as March 8th until 1977 by the UN. (Ok, so the ‘100th Anniversary’ claim is suspect, and was possibly used last year as well, but everyone here is still excited.) My waiter at breakfast wished me a Happy Women’s Day, and a motorcycle driver shouted well wishes after me as I walked down the street in Kampala. Unfortunately, the sentiment was probably the same as when motos SSss at me every other day of the year, which our Rwandan male friends claim are all for men. “I don’t know why you need a special day for you, unless you’re admitting that the other 364 are for us,” Marlene’s husband told us.

Nonetheless, Women’s Day is a big holiday in Rwanda and Uganda (and an official public holiday in Afghanistan and China among others, according to Wikipedia). Some businesses are closed, organizations host special events, and articles about female empowerment run in the government paper.  The Director of the Center for Gender and Cultural Development is hosting a celebratory breakfast at her home this morning, and we are speaking at a conference on gender research and activism this weekend.

In a country where we spend our days hearing stories of discrimination, gender-based violence, and inequality in educating daughters vs sons, formal support for women is encouraging, but according to our teams, not yet enough- that’s why they keep calling us! In the meantime, I’ll continue arguing with Marlene’s husband, laughing along with Elvis at the supermarket because I insist on carrying my own jug of water to the register, and wearing long skirts to frisbee before changing into shorts and running alongside teammates who inform me they’re going to marry three wives. …And then I intercept his pass and all is right in the world.

Women who are widows, orphans and former commercial sex workers lining up for the group picture at the 2010 graduation ceremony for the Community Vocational Training School, a social venture that receives GG seed funding and training. CVTS teaches the women how to sew so they can support themselves.

Driving from Jinja to Acholi Land

March 6, 2011 by Caitlin

Post was a bit delayed because there aren’t many internet cafes up north!

After taking a weekend break from meetings to raft with some friends at the source of the Nile, Monday morning we met our driver and the 4×4 we rented to drive North, the area where we hope to identify new change agents among the victims of war violence. The driver estimated it would take three or four hours to get there, and the distance was “over 200 kilometers.” (Key word: over.)

Welcome to the concept of African Time. As our co-worker Marlene explains to us, time is “kinda flexible.” I shouldn’t be surprised when my frisbee teammate tells me he’ll be there in five minutes and shows up half an hour later. I’ve grown wary of trusting estimates like that. Once, Marlene told me that if we left for a field visit at 9, we would return by 2. “The bus is 2 hours, and then it takes thirty minutes in a car to get to the village,” she explained. Doing some quick math, I deduced if we finished by 2, we would spend exactly zero minutes at the site. So, with a knowing smile, I accepted her time estimate, and shared her amusement when we missed dinner at 6pm.

African Time prevails in Rwanda, and apparently Uganda as well. We had estimates of three or six hours for the 200+ or 350 km trip to Gulu. We would be flexible. After three hours, Christina and I pulled out our laptops to type some reports, and as we approached hour four… POP. Metal grinded on pavement and our driver Joseph expertly maneuvered the car to the side of the road. The back tire had blown out, the entire tread peeling off in protest of the 100+ ºF temperatures and the friction on even hotter pavement. We weren’t very surprised, given four straight hours on the road. According to the estimates we were almost there. But alas, across the road from our lopsided vehicle loomed an ominous sign: “Gulu 250 km.”

“Joseph, is that sign right? How far to Gulu?”

“Very far. What did the sign say?” Then, “Yes, that sounds right.”

“I thought you said 200 km… What were we doing for the last four hours?” Christina nudged me and I stopped myself, sharing her  defeated laugh. Thirty minutes later we were underway. I called our Gulu contact to reschedule our afternoon meeting. “No problem!” she said. “Don’t hurry! Just call when you arrive.” We were meeting on African Time, which was good since our journey took seven hours, including the tire blow-out, a lunch stop to bargain for some mangoes, and the traffic (a big problem in Uganda, especially where two major roads meet). And, like she suggested, we didn’t hurry. She was doing some business in town when we arrived— the system works when everyone is on it.

Uganda Update: Meetings…

March 1, 2011 by Christina

… have been amazing.  It would take dozens of pages to record everything we’ve learned thus far about Uganda and the gender and development work being done here, plus our evolving thoughts on where and how our programming is most needed.  I’ll try to share some anecdotes that will give you a glimpse of how things are going.

After our magical visit with SHED on the Ssese Islands, we headed up to Kampala and paid a visit to the Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) headquarters.  UWONET arose from the 1993 East African Women’s Conference held in Kampala.  Director of Programs Betty Kasiko explained UWONET’s structure: they’re an umbrella organization built of district-level women’s networks and encompassing associations like the Center for Domestic Violence Protection and the Association of Women Lawyers in Uganda.  UWONET has a myriad of programs and activities: capacity building and networking, research and policy advocacy, ICT support, institutional strengthening, financial support and grant application facilitation.  I hope that Rwanda will have its own RWONET someday.  UWONET connected us to several new potential partner organizations in northern Uganda and agreed to help distribute applications for our Academy for Conscious Change when we begin work in Uganda.

Full of new ideas and plans inspired by UWONET, we headed toward downtown to meet Rosemary Nyakikongoro, who was recommended to us by Global Grassroots’ former program associate Gillian Porcella as an expert on gender work in Uganda.  Rosemary worked for many years at Action for Development (ACFODE).  She picked us up, and we headed to dinner at the colorful Nanjing Motel.  In the car we found out – we’re talking with a newly elected MP of Uganda!  In fact, Rosemary just found out about her victory and is coming straight from a celebratory rally.  She plans to continue championing women’s rights and women’s involvement in leadership from within parliament.  Rosemary is fast-paced, passionate, and seems to know everyone involved in gender and development in Uganda!  She gave us advice about working in post-conflict areas of Uganda and provided additional contact information for potential partner organizations and advisers.

Next stop: Jinja!

Over Monday morning breakfast, we were chatting with a couple in our Jinja hostel about Ugandan cell phone rates and smoothie flavors when we mentioned that we worked for Global Grassroots.  “Oh, of course we know Global Grassroots,” they told us.  They turned out to be the representatives for Global Giving – a wonderful website that connects social projects and donors – in East Africa.  Caitlin and I have helped some of our Global Grassroots teams develop and maintain profiles on Global Giving, so meeting them in person was fun.  They were rushing off to do a training in the area, and we were rushing because the (incredible) founder and director of Jinja’s St. Francis Health Care Services was about to pick us up in the parking lot.  In between scarfed bites of baked beans, we compared notes on our exit strategies after an incubated social project has become a sustainable, impactful organization in its own right.  They offered an email contact to ask for training materials to help get more of our teams on their website.  I jotted it down.  Life is just perfect sometimes.

Faustine Ngarambe founded St. Francis Health Care Services 12 years ago, and St. Francis currently serves more than 10,000 HIV/AIDS patients and their families.  Their holistic approach to HIV/AIDS care, advocacy, and social support is incredibly innovative, and they’ve achieved great success and recognition (www.stfrancishealthservices.org).  We visited the library, teaching vegetable garden, and colorful dormitories at Omawana House, their child rehabilitation center.  Faustine took us to see the site of one of their grandmothers projects – support networks and community income-generating projects for grandmothers who have lost their children to AIDS and must now care for their HIV-positive grandchildren.  We admired the pigs, vegetables, and nearly completed chicken coop.  We also talked with Faustine about his partnership with Lenny Williams of Mandala House, who will visit Uganda soon to train the St. Francis counselors and other staff about healing through yoga practices.  We hope to partner with their yoga trainees to provide follow-up support in trauma healing and personal transformation for our Academy of Conscious Change partcipants (i.e. our social project team leaders/change agents.

Next, the long drive up to Gulu!  Updates on meetings in northern Uganda to come.

Water A Key Lever for Advancing Women’s Rights

February 28, 2011 by Gretchen

On March 8th, the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, celebrations are taking place worldwide to highlight both the progress made for women’s rights and the distance we have yet to go. We must also not forget another day that will take place later this month honoring an issue of grave importance to women. March 22 is World Water Day. Unfortunately, the explicit and critical link between women’s wellbeing and their access to clean water often goes unnoticed.

Globally, women make up more than half of the 884 million people who have no access to safe water. They also represent those most often tasked with daily collection. According to UNWomen, on average women travel 10-15 kilometers or 6-9 miles every day, spending eight hours or more collecting water then hand carrying it to their home. Most women can only carry one large jerrycan, each of which holds 5 gallons or 20 liters. This water must then serve an average of 8 to 10 people in a household daily for drinking, cooking, washing clothes and dishes, bathing and cleaning their home. Compare this ½ – 1 gallon usage per person per day, to the 69. 5 gallons per capita use of water in America, including 11.6 gallons for a shower, 15 gallons for clothes washing, 18.5 gallons for flushing toilets, 9.5 gallons lost through leaks, and 14.7 gallons for all other uses per day.

According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation, girls under 15 years of age are twice as likely as boys the same age to be given the responsibility to collect water. Girls who are tasked with the collection of water in place of their mothers miss part of their school day. Overtime, they can fall behind and eventually drop out. Women who manage this task for their family, give up hours of productivity that might have been spent in other ways to enhance a family’s economic wellbeing. Water collection thus continues to perpetuate the vulnerability of women, undermining the economic and educational opportunities that may exist to advance their wellbeing.

Even more unfortunate is the violence inherent in the process of collection. Because it takes so many hours to reach and return with water, many women leave before dawn and travel in the dark to get to a water access point early. Some water access points serve thousands of surrounding villagers. Arriving early means women can avoid the crowds that often break into violence as individuals compete for access. It also means that they are more likely to collect clear water from shallow creeks or hand-dug wells before it gets muddied with dozens of others coming for collection. However, traveling alone through the dark also leaves women more susceptible to sexual assault. On the other hand, returning later than expected from collecting water is often a trigger for domestic violence as husbands await their morning tea or bath. Pregnant women carrying heavy water jugs are more likely to suffer a miscarriage. Women who are blind, elderly, disabled or too sick to carry water on their own are often forced to trade sex for men to deliver it for them when they cannot afford to pay for the service.

Not only is the collection process racked with violence and exploitation, but the water itself is a source of harm, spreading dangerous water-borne diseases. Globally, diarrhea is the second leading cause of death among children under five. And it is the lack of clean drinking water and proper hygiene and sanitation that are the primary causes of diarrhea. Safe water is also essential for reducing maternal mortality and infant mortality rates.

While women remain those most deeply impacted by the lack of access to clean water, unfortunately, women are least likely to control or manage water infrastructure. Yet, women represent the most critical stakeholders with a vested interest in resolving this issue. No country can deny the statistics that when economic opportunity is given to women, development soars. In a speech given by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2003, he stated, “Study after study has shown that there is no effective development strategy in which women do not play a central role. When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier and better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is also true of communities and, in the long run, of whole countries.”

How is it not recognized then how much economic development is hindered if women spend 4-8 hours each day collecting water? Further, water ventures can provide women with a viable and sustainable income, and an opportunity to serve as a change agent within her community serving the marginalized. The World Health Organization estimates that depending upon the region, for every $1 invested in water and sanitation it yields an economic return of between $3 and $34. Ensuring women’s participation and opportunity to design and manage water ventures allows them to ensure their own protection and livelihood.

Take Global Grassroots venture “Hard Workers” for instance. In a rural community called Gahanga on the outskirts of mountainous Kigali, a team of 19 women led by Seraphine Hacimana have been particularly troubled by the long journey they must embark upon each day to collect water. Rwanda is a spectacular, mountainous country. And in Gahanga, like many parts of Rwanda, women rarely have a water source near the home, so they must walk 3-4 miles down a hillside to collect water at a dirty valley creek. In addition to the disease and poor hygiene associated with poor water access, many of those who were left physically disabled by the war and those who are elderly, blind, pregnant or HIV positive are too weak to make this journey. In this area, a service has sprung up where local men agree to deliver water on bicycles for a fee. But if you cannot pay, as one woman told us: “Your children are coming home from school for lunch and you have no water to cook them rice and beans. And so, you do what you have to do.” Many women end up having to exchange sex water delivery, just to feed their children.

With our social entrepreneurship training and an initial $2600 grant, Seraphine and her team designed their own non-profit water solution. They installed a water tank next to a church within close walking distance of this remote community to collect and purify rainwater from the roof during the rainy season. In the dry season, they pay for clean water to be delivered by truck from the city. Hard Workers supplies 100 households (totaling between 800 – 1000 people) with fresh clean water daily. The revenue generated from those who can afford to pay, ensures the most vulnerable always have water for free. Further, the team uses any profits to pay orphan school fees and provide annual health insurance for vulnerable women and their families. Three years later, the project is operating sustainably and preparing to expand to three additional sites to serve another 3000 people, protecting even more women from sexual exploitation. The team members, some even widows in their 70s, sleep side-by-side in shifts each night to protect their tanks from people stealing their water. The venture has become so valuable to the community that even some of the village men have asked to join the project, and occasionally when a woman is sick, their husbands will take their shift guarding the tanks at night.

These women have become established leaders in their community and have begun to make a major difference in a critical issue facing vulnerable women. Women from as far as three hours away have walked to visit the team to see how they were able to initiate their project alone. Project leader Seraphine has spoken on the radio about water issues, has been invited to Kenya to share their solution and is now seen as the first to bring development to their remote community. But what is most remarkable about this team is that of its 19 members, only 7 are actually literate. And Seraphine is a 39 year old mother of 7 children with only a 1st grade education. Once living on the edge of survival, Seraphine is now a community change leader.

Though it may take longer to combat the patriarchal, cultural institution that essentially holds women in servitude to the process of collecting water, the act itself may prove an opportunity for intervention on other issues. Water access points where women gather make assembling and sensitizing large groups remarkably easy. Take “Have a Good Life” for example, another Global Grassroots water venture located within a hillside community of Kigali. Similar to the issues faced by Hard Workers, vulnerable women in Have a Good Life’s community have been exploited in exchange for water delivery adding to the prevalence of HIV. Further, contaminated water sources have contributed to high incidences of cholera, typhoid and diarrhea. A baseline issue study among a sample of the population revealed: 95 percent said they had suffered from diseases related to unclean water, 81.4 percent had traded sex for water, 100 percent knew someone infected by HIV while trading sex for water, yet only 25 percent had taken HIV tests. Have a Good Life extended a municipal pipeline from a more populated area and constructed a water access point to bring water into their hillside community. Not only do they now serve 200 families (1600 – 2000 people) with clean water, they use their water access point as a location where they can speak to women about proper hygiene as well as HIV/AIDS testing.

When wells are dug near clinics, health care providers can gain access more easily to women and children when they come to collect water, allowing for more regular check-ups. In South Africa and Malawi, Roundabout Water Solutions is constructing wells with water pumps fueled by merry-go-rounds at schools. These PlayPumps ensure girls to remain in schools and use the power of play to fill a tank for use by the school and community. Painted billboards are hung on the overhead tank containing awareness messages, allowing the water access site to become educational as well.

Water is simply a key lever for advancing women’s rights and opportunity. Any group eager to eliminate violence against women ought to consider advocating for women’s access to clean water. Women consistently face a risk of violence in the process of collecting water from sexual violence, sexual exploitation and domestic violence. Further, a lack of access to clean water has long been a driver of poverty as well. Not only does water collection rob women of a half day of productivity, but girls who participate on behalf of their family also fall behind in school and are at higher risk of dropping out all together. In contrast, women who manage their own clean water access not only ensure the most vulnerable women and girls are no longer subjected to such violence, but the ability of women to lead and control water ventures provides women with greater confidence, agency, leadership and engagement in community as change agents. Our experience has shown that one successful experience as a change agent is quickly followed by expansion and/or an iterative problem-solving process where women take on other challenges facing women in their communities. Women not only will have more courage, but they will also have greater access to resources to do so. Women-managed clean water access ensures girls’ access to education will be protected and the next generation will have even greater opportunities.

The link between women and water is clear. In order to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of people without access to water and sanitation by 2015, women must be engaged in all aspects of planning, design, implementation and management of water infrastructure. Water innovation should focus not just on large scale municipal and commercial water infrastructure, but as equally on individual and single-household usage tools that are immediately applicable, affordable and accessible to women in a developing country context. While other MDGs commit to advancing the rights and wellbeing of women, it can serve to make explicit the critical link between women’s rights, wellbeing and opportunity and their access to water. Further, UNWomen in its commitment to advancing women’s wellbeing must consider women’s access to clean water a critical human right that can serve as a potent lever for advancing women’s well-being on many other levels. Finally, global NGOs and environmental agencies committed to protecting clean water must not ignore the vested interests of women, and the knowledge base they represent in terms of the location, quality and reliability of water sources. Engaging women in the design, management and innovation around access, movement, utilization, conservation and treatment of water is essential.

Women want and deserve safe, easy, affordable access to clean water without violence, exploitation or a trade-off with other forms of economic or educational pursuits. More funding, training, and opportunity is needed to ensure locally-initiated water ventures can be advanced by grassroots women.

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