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When Women Lead, Communities Succeed

By Gretchen Ki Steidle, Founder & President of Global Grassroots

October 2018

In August, at Stockholm World Water Week, Water and Development Alliance (WADA), in partnership with Global Water Challenge (GWC) and Ipsos, released research findings revealing the compelling link between safe, clean water access and women’s empowerment. Globally, while women remain those most deeply impacted by the lack of access to clean water, they are least likely to control or manage water infrastructure. Water is a key lever for advancing women’s rights, well-being, and opportunity. Ensuring women’s participation and opportunity to design and manage water access allows them to ensure their own protection and livelihood, and leverages this simple investment for exponential ripples of impact.

In locations in Rwanda and Uganda where water accessibility is limited, Global Grassroots helps undereducated women to design, construct, and implement their own water solutions that improve safety, health, and educational and economic opportunities for women and girls. By implementing their own non-profit enterprises, these women demonstrate their value to their communities, realize their leadership potential and, using our unique methods, build inclusive and sustainable local institutions that foster greater collective stability.

As Ipsos identified, there are multiple ripple effects of clean, safe water access benefiting women in terms of health and hygiene, safety, time savings, economics, education, and leadership. But when women actually lead the development and operation of their own water ventures, even greater impact is possible.

Women who manage their own clean water access not only ensure the most vulnerable women and girls are no longer subjected to the violence and exploitation inherent in water collection, but also enable girls’ access to education. The opportunity for women to lead fosters greater confidence, self-efficacy, and engagement in their communities as change agents. Over time, their leadership and value to their communities shift gender relations, roles, and behavior. Further, women-led water infrastructure provides women with significant time savings, allows a sustainable source of income for their own livelihood, and generates revenue that they will invest in other urgent needs facing the community. 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 the other challenges in their communities.

In 2017, we conducted an intensive evaluation of the nine water teams we initiated from 2015-2016 in partnership with The Coca-Cola Foundation and GWC, clustered in the Jali Sector of Rwanda. The impact that our women-led teams had across this region in less than 12 months was remarkable:

• A 96% decrease in weekly cases of diarrhea in children under the age of five.
• 98% of women reporting they now feeling safe collecting water.
• A shift from 27% to 0% reporting sexual violence associated with water collection.
• Time savings of approximately 3.45 hours per day per woman.
• An 80% decrease in reported loss of income from collecting water.
• Behavior change and greater gender equity, with increases in men sharing water collecting duties from 8% to nearly 42% of households.
• A 69% decrease in children's absence from school (75% of whom were girls).

Global Grassroots’ approach to women-led water infrastructure achieves all of this impact for just $8 per beneficiary, and 100% of all of our water and sanitation enterprises are still operating sustainably since those first trained in 2007.

When women lead, communities succeed.

When women are at the helm, they develop solutions that are most aligned with the needs of the community. This maximizes their social and economic impact. Since women are personally impacted by and thus so deeply vested in the success of their ventures, this helps drive long-term sustainability. Once women have the tools, resources, and confidence to advance their own ideas, they will continue to serve as change agents.

Organizations interested in maximizing their impact for the benefit of women and girls and to extend the sustainability of their water infrastructure should consider the following six keys for success:

  1. Foster Community-driven and Women-led Development among self-organized women and girls to lead issue diagnosis and solution development;
  2. Make Financial Resources for Women Accessible as grants or partial microfinance and ensure women manage their own funding;
  3. Enable Local-led Impact Assessment with culturally appropriate metrics and methods to assess progress and prosperity as defined by the people themselves;
  4. Measure both Internal and External Ripple Effects not only violence, safety, education, economics, and health, but also agency, confidence, well-being, and leadership;  
  5. Encourage Water Access Points to Serve as Social Impact Hubs for further educational and social service interventions; and
  6. Invest in Eco-System Development including clustering women-led ventures, building networks for mentorship and exchange, and engaging in multi-sector partnerships.

The link between women and water is clear. Women must be engaged in all aspects of planning, design, implementation, and management of water infrastructure. While other NGOs commit to advancing the rights and wellbeing of women, these programs can benefit from including the critical link between women’s wellbeing and opportunity and their access to water. 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. Engaging women in the solutions-design and management of clean water is essential for long-term community prosperity.

A water venture leader in Rwanda, provides for her family and serves as an example for the next generation of the community's female leaders - empowering tomorrow.

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