Capital: The Tool Women Need for Water

Lack of access to clean water and sanitation facilities affects women and girls most. Jennifer Schorsch, president of Water.org, explains how it is women who step up to solve the problem themselves.

Written by Elizabeth Dwyer Published on May 31, 2016 Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Tirotama uses a water tap she installed in her home. She used a WaterCredit loan to finance the purchase. Photo by Water.org

More than 2 billion people don’t have safe and easy access to toilets, places to wash their hands and other sanitation facilities required for a healthy life – and one out of every 10 people doesn’t have clean water for drinking and cooking. Women and girls are affected most: without access toilets at school, girls risk cutting their education short, and without access to toilets at home, girls and women of all ages risk becoming victims of violence.

Yet, women also have a unique ability to solve these problems. According to U.N. Water, when they are involved in solving water and sanitation issues, the results are six to seven times more effective. Over the past decade, Water.org’s WaterCredit loans have emerged as a tool that more than 3 million women worldwide have grabbed ahold. With these microcredit loans, women purchase clean water spouts, washing facilities and in-home toilets.

These aren’t  business loans – as one may think of microfinance traditionally – but they have a powerful role to play in improving physical health as well as financial stability. Jennifer Schorsch, president of Water.org, explains why.

Women and Girls Hub: What are the biggest challenges for women and girls who lack access to clean water sanitation facilities?

Jennifer Schorsch: We believe very strongly – and it’s borne out in communities around the world – that when women have access to water and sanitation, it creates a cycle of opportunity.

In the absence of that, women and girls who lack access to sanitation facilities and clean water are locked into a cycle of poverty. There are significant health repercussions. Every 90 seconds, a child dies from a preventable water-related disease, and there are some really interesting recent studies that suggest that both physical- and intellectual-growth stunting is related not only to malnutrition but also to exposure to bacteria.

At a very fundamental level, far too many mothers are losing far too many children, and far too many young children – both girls and boys – are severely affected by the absence of water and sanitation.

Girls specifically get trapped in a cycle of needing to walk to have water. They’re precluded from pursuing their dreams because they are required to pick up the mantle of going to fetch water. They leave school because there’s nowhere to relieve themselves, and they spend time trying to find a safe place to do so. This means girls can’t have the full life that they otherwise would be able to live.

There has been a lot of press and studies about India recently that estimate up to 65 percent of sexual violence against women and girls happens when they are trying to find a safe place to relieve themselves. For privacy, they’ll wait until the dark of night, which increases their risks. When I read these articles about young girls attacked, raped or even killed simply because they were trying to find a safe and private place to relieve themselves, I feel a sense of indignation. It’s just not right.

On what planet is it OK that our daughters go out to relieve themselves and don’t come home? How is it OK that in many countries, women lose their children, and girls have drop out of school simply because they don’t have access to water and sanitation? That’s not OK.

Woman collecting water in Pillayarkuppam village. (Water.org)
Woman collecting water in Pillayarkuppam village. (Water.org)

Women and Girls Hub: What prevents a household from having a water hookup, or a school from having toilet facilities for students?

Schorsch: That’s a very complex issue, and it varies depending on the geography. In some places like rural Africa, you simply do not have an infrastructure of water. There aren’t pipes that are laid from a municipal water system that lead to these villages, and so residents are required to use surface water solutions or walk for long distances to a water source – and usually that water source is contaminated.

In many places where the infrastructure exists – urban India, for instance – it’s simply a matter of those folks not being considered potential paying customers. The water source runs under the street right past the slums, but because the water municipality thinks they can’t or won’t pay, those water sources are going to their wealthier neighbors.

The sad fact and the irony is that a lot of those folks who live in poverty are paying 12-15 times more per liter of water than their wealthy neighbors because they have to find informal systems. They have to buy tanker trucks, water packets or they have to pay for a municipal toilet. One tremendously powerful element of WaterCredit is that it demonstrates those living in poverty have the capacity to invest to solve their own water challenges.

Women and Girls Hub: What are the most promising solutions that make you most excited about their potential to expand access to water and sanitation?

Schorsch: There are tons of technological solutions – toilet technologies, water filtration – but the most significant obstacle that exists most right now is capital.

The World Health Organization estimates that it will take at least $200 billion per year to solve the global water and sanitation crisis over the next five years just to put in place the infrastructure we need, and to maintain it. We all look to foreign aid and philanthropy; about $9 billion per year is applied to water issues, so there’s a giant gap in capital.

Right now, we are really trying to do our part to draw attention to this and mobilize additional sources of capital, and that’s really where WaterCredit comes in.

Our model focuses on household lending. What we do is invest philanthropic dollars to help successful microfinance institutions build their capacity to offer loans for water and sanitation. That could include funding for local market demand studies, pricing studies or other technical assistance that puts them in the best situation to assess borrower creditworthiness. Borrowers take out loans to install the best solution for their home, which may be a rainwater harvesting tank in Africa or in-house water taps in urban South Asia, for example.

WaterCredit loans have reached 3.3 million people to date – 92 percent of whom are women. The global repayment rate is 99 percent: Household lending to women produces a viable return and has almost no default.

Women and Girls Hub: How do you attract women to WaterCredit loans?

Schorsch: One thing I love about WaterCredit is that it is not a program designed specifically for women, but it so happens that women are the ones who step forward.

They see the value because they’re living with the absence of water and sanitation – it is most directly impacting them and their time and their ability to pursue their dreams. They want to better the lives for themselves and for their daughters.

Often [when] we’ll go out and talk to women who have taken out loans – and particularly those who have taken out toilet loans – they’ll say, “I did this for my daughters because they can’t stay in school if there’s not a toilet there. I want them to have the opportunity to have dignity. I want them to be safe.”

Kalavathi_with_her_loan_card
Kalavathi with her WaterCredit loan card. (Water.org)

Women and Girls Hub: How do you see women solving these water issues for themselves and their households?

Schorsch: One of my favorite visits was to a village outside of Bangalore in India where we had made WaterCredit loans available. It was like a microcosm of entrepreneurship. You see all of these women who are no longer waiting or walking for water. In front of one house, you see them rolling incense sticks, and another there [are] herbs laid out drying. We walked by one building with all these loud noises coming out. When we walked in, there were these two huge looms and the women were weaving all this fabric. It was the result of them having their time back – no longer consumed by the need to find water and safe toilets. They now have the ability to apply their immense creativity to earn a greater income.

The women I meet are often standing tall. They’re proud, and they want to tell you they’re providing a better life for their families.