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Empowering women through safe water

Empowering women, Telangana, groundwater, female labour force participation, UN Sustainable Development Goals 6, iJal stations

Padmaja runs a small water enterprise in her village Rangashaipet, in Telangana. This region of Telangana has fluoride contamination in the groundwater, leading to crippling fluorosis. This disease sets in early in the children, stunting their growth, mottling and decaying their teeth, and causing early ageing due to skeleton erosion. Now, the residents of Rangashaipet have access to clean and safe drinking water through a woman-managed and treated water facility.

The relationship between women and water is eternal. Women have traditionally been water bearers, walking miles, lugging water home. They are disproportionately burdened with unpaid tiresome domestic work, care for the sick, robbing them of opportunities to learn skills and be employed.

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According to a World Bank report, India ranks 120 among 131 countries in female labour force participation rates. The economic contribution of women in India stands at 17% of GDP, which is lesser than half of the global average. It becomes very difficult for an economy to grow sustainably if 50% of its population is not an active part of the workforce. Including at least 50% of women in the national workforce can ramp up India s GDP growth by 1.5 percentage points.

Small water enterprises (SWEs) can play an important role in fostering women entrepreneurship and ensuring their economic participation in the nation s development. SWEs can provide opportunities to women to turn from water bearers to water managers, improving availability and accessibility of safe drinking water, earning livelihood, and improving their quality of life. Nearly 13.8 crore households that comprise 69 crore people lack access to safe drinking water. Nearly 2 lakh people die every year in India because of consuming contaminated drinking water. Engaging women in the management of SWEs can help achieve the twin objectives of women s empowerment and provision of safe drinking water to the communities, contributing to UN Sustainable Development Goals 6 (Clean Water), 5 (Gender Equality) and 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth).

Promoting the concept of SWEs, the Safe Water Network India (SWNI) took up the initiative to empower grass-roots women self-help groups or slum-level federation by empowering them with skills, deploying technology, and reducing their work hours to mainstream them into an economic activity, thus changing their historical role from water carriers to safe water managers. Their journey was not easy given societal barriers, gendered roles and responsibilities, access to finance, besides lack of skill-sets. To achieve this goal, a series of training programmes were developed and workshops conducted in local languages where women entrepreneurs were trained to understand the conceptual and operational aspects of treatment facilities. Technological innovations deployed at water stations provided women entrepreneurs flexible work hours to maintain a work-home balance. The iJal station managers were also trained to engage with customers and educate their community members about the benefits of consuming safe drinking water.

The results are remarkably impressive. There was a visible shift in water carrying patterns. At iJal stations, for example, men (over 75%) come to collect water on their bicycles and motorcycles using their prepaid RFID cards to dispense water in cans. Additionally, women working at these water stations not only earn a livelihood, but also make a positive and long-lasting impact within their communities and contribute to the national economy.
Despite India s notable GDP growth rate, a huge population is underutilised. Government-run initiatives like Skill India Mission and Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana are fostering an enabling environment for entrepreneurship, but there continues to be a persistent need to create more prospects for women to earn gainful employment. Investment in SWEs provide an opportunity to women, particularly in rural areas, to improve the health of communities and earn livelihoods. More initiatives need to be taken to create gender parity in the economy. It s the collective responsibility of the government and society to realise the goal of a more inclusive, sustainable and prosperous future.