From Water Bearers to Water Providers

Global Women’s Water Initiative

At the end of 2015, Kharanda Health Clinic in Kakamega, Kenya reported that their staff had delivered 215 babies over the course of the year. It’s hard to imagine that just three years earlier the clinic was a small health dispensary operating only during the day. Staff members could barely provide basic health services, and treated only about a dozen patients a day due to water-related constraints: When health treatments required water, a nurse would have to fetch it from the local river. The trip would take hours.

photo of women wearing hard-hats and bricklaying, they seem amusedphotos Gemma BulosLaying bricks for a water storage tank in Uganda.

Thanks to the installation of two rainwater harvesting systems and water storage tanks in 2012, the clinic began offering delivery and maternal health services. The Kenyan government – which has a strong commitment to improving maternal health – paid the clinic for every birth, and provided all the equipment necessary for fully functioning delivery and recovery rooms. With the additional funding, the clinic was able to offer expanded healthcare services. It was also able to support live-in medical staff who could provide treatment to patients 24/7, and it could now have the facility cleaned daily rather than weekly. Just three years after receiving the water harvesting and storage systems, it was accredited as a full-service clinic and won the designation of Best Managed Health Facility in the region from the local government.

In the same village, a primary school was nearly closed down by the government in 2014 because it did not have the required number of toilets for the student population. Within a month of the government assessment, separate toilets for boys and girls were built, along with an attached washing bay next to the girls’ toilet so that female students would have a place to wash up during their periods: One out of 10 girls drops out of school by the eighth grade when there are no sanitation facilities. Because of this intervention, the school was allowed to remain open. Within less than a year, enrollment at the school had increased. The number of female students now exceeds the number of male students.

These two stories are connected not just because the clinic and school are in the same village. The water-related technologies that both facilities received were built by the same local women’s organization, Women in Water and Natural Resources Conservation (WWANC). Since 2012, Global Women’s Water Initiative (GWWI), a project of Earth Island Institute, has been training women-led grassroots organizations like WWANC to become water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) technicians, trainers, and social entrepreneurs. WWANC is one of 12 East African women-led organizations that have participated in GWWI’s three-year training program.

The comprehensive training program equips women and their grassroots organizations with the requisite tools and skills to bring sustainable WASH and health solutions to their families and communities. The program takes a holistic approach, training women to offer a variety of water and sanitation services to meet the specific needs of each of their clients. It also trains them as instructors who can teach other women to do the same, and make money doing it.

According to the World Health Organization, women and children spend 125 million hours each day collecting water. It is estimated that a child dies every 90 seconds from a water-borne disease. Globally, water-borne diseases affect more than 1.5 billion people every year. Since designing solutions with an integrated approach is the most effective way to reduce the spread of such diseases, GWWI trainees learn multiple strategies for providing access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene.

GWWI designed this multi-year, holistic water, sanitation, and hygiene training-model to focus on women in response to a 2010-2011 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report that found that the “exclusion of women in community water and sanitation projects was the cause of their high rate of failure.”

photo of a woman working, she is carrying a baby on her back and smilingphotos Gemma BulosBaby Gemma is being raised in a world where women doing
construction work is normal.

Women and girls are also disproportionately affected by the lack of WASH – they are generally the water fetchers, spending much of their day doing water-related chores, which prevents women from working and girls going to school. GWWI is one of the only organizations in the world that trains women and women-led organizations to provide a full spectrum of WASH services.

As technicians, GWWI trainees learn to construct appropriate technologies made out of local materials, like rainwater harvesting systems, water storage tanks, toilets, and water filters. They also learn to make handmade hygiene-related products like soap, shampoo, and reusable menstrual pads. As trainers, women learn facilitation skills to offer workshops in hygiene, water source protection, technology construction, water testing, soap making, and more. And finally, as social entrepreneurs, they learn to put a monetary value on the WASH services they provide and products they make. GWWI also strengthens participants’ grant proposal writing skills so they can access funding to expand their WASH projects.

Members of Women in Water and Natural Resources Conservation were able to provide customized solutions to both the Kharanda Health Clinic and Kakamega School because of the training and seed funding they received from GWWI. The women’s group has since helped out other schools and raised more than $51,000 in grants and in-kind donations from the community. It has also has generated additional income from product sales and services.

WWANC is not an outlier. The 11 other women’s groups in GWWI’s current training cohort have similar success stories. GWWI’s recently released 2012-2015 Impact Report found that, with the help of its training, women from the 12 organizations have built 73 rainwater harvesting systems, 700 toilets, and 427 water filters, thus providing clean water and sanitation to over 30,600 people in East Africa. As trainers, these women have offered a variety of WASH workshops to more than 14,000 people, and have trained 184 additional women in construction of WASH technologies. As social entrepreneurs, the organizations have raised more than $302,000 in grants, in-kind donations, and service contracts.

But the most exciting results from the impact report are those indicating a change in status of the women trainees in their communities and around the globe. GWWI uses WASH expertise as an entry point to build women’s leadership. Although women are challenging gender stereotypes by engaging in activities like construction, because WASH is such an urgent need in their villages, trainees have been met with support rather than resistance from male community leaders. Some of the GWWI trainees also report that their husbands appreciate them more now that they are providing more income and have knowledge about construction.

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Prior to enrolling in the training program, 90 percent of the female participants had little or no knowledge about water, sanitation, and hygiene technologies. None had ever built anything. After four years of GWWI training, one-third of the women who had undergone training were invited to serve on their local water boards, including one who was elected as the board chairperson. Half of the organizations GWWI has trained have won local and regional WASH awards. Two GWWI team leaders were selected for separate US State Department fellowships. And 76 percent of the trainees reported that they would be “completely confident” running for political office.

Global Women’s Water Initiative invests in women’s leadership because it has been proven time and time again that women are essential to social and economic development, and because women tend to be more entrepreneurial: They often lack access to the formal labor market and have to find creative ways to generate income. In recognition of the UN’s World Water Day “Water and Jobs” Celebration on March 21, GWWI hopes the success of the WASH training program provides additional evidence of how engaging and training women as workers and leaders in social enterprises can have a broad range of positive impacts in communities across the world.

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