04/19/2012 06:12 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2012

Transforming Women's Water Burdens Into Economic Opportunities

In rural Uganda, it's dawn and a mother and daughter gather their empty jericans (3- to 5- gallon water containers), their dirty pots and soiled clothing to begin their daily chores. There is a local vendor that sells clean water but it's too expensive at 25 cents per jerican to buy the amount of water they need when the family makes less than a $1 a day. So they go in search of another source, which can sometimes take all day. At nearly eight pounds per gallon, it is too heavy to carry enough water home to accomplish their chores so they carry out their activities at the water source. After spending hours washing and drying the clothes, pots and dishes, and bathing themselves, the children and sometimes even the animals, they begin the long journey home. This time in addition to the laundry and pots, carrying 5 gallons of water -- nearly 44 pounds and often contaminated -- just enough to cook and provide drinking water for their family for maybe a few days. With the jerican atop their heads, shoulders and backs, they strain to keep the delicate balance, careful not to lose a single drop on the rough road home. With the jerican atop their heads, shoulders and backs, they strain to keep the delicate balance, careful not to lose a single drop on the rough road home. They relieve themselves in an open field because there are no toilets, putting them at risk of violent attacks.

Around the globe, the containers, the clothes and the scenery may be different, but the experience is the same. Women carry the weight of water on their backs, literally and figuratively, cultivating a gender divide that ripples into deeper socio-economic inequities. If women have the tools and technologies in their hands, the strategies to harness and transform their knowledge into livelihoods, and the willingness to challenge gender stereotypes, they can thrive.

Worldwide, it is estimated that on a single day women can spend over 200 billion collective hours fetching water. One in 10 girls drop out of school or miss one week per month when they start menstruating because of the lack of toilets. Additionally, women are responsible for the health of the household often adding financial stress when a family member falls ill if she must miss out on any income-generating opportunities not to mention having to buy medicines or pay for health services.

It's difficult to imagine that the amount of water that some families, like ones in Uganda, have available on a daily basis is less water than two of our Western toilet flushes. In the time it takes a rural Ugandan woman to fetch water, a Western woman can fix breakfast and lunch, take their children to school, work and go to the bathroom numerous times. Can you imagine the opportunities lost for women and girls when their day is spent fetching water, doing water related chores, drinking and serving contaminated water?

"The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated, "The exclusion of women from the planning of water supply and sanitation schemes is a major cause of their high rate of failure."

Because they are often in charge of procuring water for their families and communities, women have a much deeper relationship to this essential resource. Yet in many places around the world their knowledge and hard work is ignored when it comes to community decision-making around the provision of clean water and sanitation strategies. Women know the locations of all the available and seasonable water sources as well as which water source is safest. Also, because they have more interaction with water than others, making sure they have access to information about proper hygiene practices, and the ability to implement them, is crucial to perpetuating family health. If a mother is cooking, cleaning and providing drinking water and not practicing good hygiene, the whole family is at risk.

But in challenging traditional stereotypes by building water and sanitation technologies, women can sometimes face even more adversity in their communities from their husbands and male leaders. One can also argue that quality control can be an issue due to women's lack of background in construction. However with comprehensive training and support, if women can provide a much-needed service to their communities by introducing simple technologies and strategies, it can be the voice that can gain them entry to the decision-making table.

Not only are women the essential link to the life-sustaining resource of water they are also often safer bets to carry out the innovations necessary to improve their communities. Statistics show women outnumber male entrepreneurs in developing economies because they face higher barriers to entry in the formal labor market and have to resort to entrepreneurship as a way out of poverty. According to multiple international micro-finance institutions, women are also more likely to pay off their loans. According to field research by the Global Women's Water Initiative (GWWI), of which I am the Director and GWWI partner Katosi Women's Development Trust, building the capacity of women to be able to lead and implement viable water and sanitation solutions through technology construction coupled with leadership and business development can provide just the opportunity for women to become self-reliant and uplift themselves from poverty.

In the case of KWDT, awarded the Best Performing WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) Organization in Uganda and just recently the 3rd Kyoto World Water Prize, KWDT women's collectives are challenging gender stereotypes and being hired to build household rainwater harvesting tanks and composting toilets, selling water filters and providing community education about proper hygiene practices. KWDT women are professionalizing their services traditionally offered by men and expanding into areas outside of their own villages. KWDT also offers micro-loans to women customers to be able to purchase a technology and pay it off over time.

The United Nations Development Programme estimates that for every $1 invested in water and sanitation solutions there is a return of up to $8 in increased productivity. The World Bank estimates that with low-cost appropriate technologies, community participation, and conscientious and transparent procurement of materials the costs of implementing water services can be reduced up to 25 percent and sanitation services up to 50 percent. "Appropriate" technologies meet the following criteria: durable, affordable, made out of local resources, can be repaired and maintained by locals and it is accepted by the community.

With the growing concerns of a world plagued with social inequities and environmental degradation, it is crucial for a future of sustainability that we seek guidance and leadership from our natural caretakers: women. When women have the support and resources to implement simple solutions to address the environmental conditions that create gender inequity, they have the power to transform their burdens into opportunities.

The Global Women's Water Initiative is a partnership between Women's Earth Alliance and Crabgrass. GWWI provides training for grassroots women and groups to implement water-related strategies so they can improve their communities' health, self-reliance, and resilience to climate change. GWWI is building a cadre of women trainers versed in a holistic set of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sills, capable of building various technology solutions.