KLab Korner Office — Celebrating Women and Water for Women’s History Month and World Water Day

In celebration of Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day (Mar 8) and World Water Day (Mar 22), Kravis Lab for Social Impact is highlighting the work of Kravis Lab Director, Gemma Bulos. Prior to coming to CMC, Gemma founded three award-winning social impact ventures on three continents. This blog post features Gemma Bulos’ work with Global Women’s Water Initiative (GWWI), an organization training women in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring sustainable water and sanitation solutions to their villages. It explores not only the vital importance of water for health and opportunity, but water’s role as a catalyst for gender parity in developing nations.

Why women and water?

Women carry the burdens of water on their head, shoulders and back, and can spend up to 8 hours a day fetching water and doing water related chores. A typical 5 gallon (20 liters) container of water, weighs 41.64 pounds that women carry over rough terrain, careful not to waste a single drop. Women lose out on income generating activities and productivity and girls drop out of school. And as the primary caretakers, if a family member falls sick (most often from consuming dirty water), women spend time, money and energy caretaking on top of their daily chores. 1 out of 10 girls will drop out of secondary school (8th grade) when they hit puberty because there are no water and sanitation facilities at their schools and they can’t take care of themselves when they are menstruating. If fetching water far from home or at school, or relieving themselves in the open when there are no toilets, women and girls are in danger of being violently attacked and even rape. Currently, there are over 784 million people who lack access to water, 3–5 million people dying of water related diseases every year, and more people have cell phones than toilets in Africa. These jarring statistics compelled Gemma to take action and determine how she might change this.

What makes Global Women’s Water Initiative innovative?

“The human right to water and sanitation is the pre-requisite for the realization of other human rights.’ Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General.

As Gemma began to learn more about how women and girls are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to water and sanitation, she started to develop training programs to ensure that women could solve their local water issues and lead community projects where they built clean water and sanitation technologies across their villages. She was inspired by a UN Food and Agricultural study that determined ‘women’s exclusion from water and sanitation projects was the cause of their high rate of failure’. It wasn’t enough to provide clean water and sanitation solutions for women, they had to be trained as experts. So, she founded Global Women’s Water Initiative, her third social enterprise based in Africa. GWWIs focus on building women’s leadership is at the core of their model.

GWWI trains women to become water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) technicians, trainers and social entrepreneurs. Women build technologies that capture, store and clean water; provide adequate sanitation (latrines), and they make hygiene products like handmade soap, shampoo and reusable menstrual pads. And they professionalize their services and earn money while improving health in their communities.

Certainly, there were obstacles since the skills the women were learning were challenging gender stereotypes and cultural norms — like construction, climbing ladders and talking about menstruation. However, everyone in their communities recognized the vital importance of water and sanitation, and instead of getting push back, it was an opportunity for people to collaborate and unite to bring much needed resources to every member of their village. These norms say women can never build anything, but, because of GWWIs comprehensive training, women who participate are now outpacing men in masonry and construction. GWWI provides a safe space for women to pick up their first shovel, lay their first brick, climb their first ladder — and allow them to try and fail and challenge themselves to be as good as — if not better than — men when providing appropriate water and sanitation solutions. An important aspect of GWWIs training is cultivating an environment where failure is expected and celebrated.

Women not only learn how to build technologies and provide affordable hygiene products, they receive training in entrepreneurship, leadership and community mobilization. This ensures that women are able earn income, spearhead local solutions, and get community support for their projects. As a result, GWWIs return on investment has been extraordinary. Women received seed funding to start their water programs. The funding covered enough to build 300 water technologies (latrines, rainwater harvesting systems, tanks, water filters) to get started. Over the course of 4 years, they’ve built over 2000 providing clean water and sanitation to over 129,000 people. That’s 6x more technologies than GWWIs seed funding covered. GWWIs financial investment was $125,000, but they were able to match and exceed GWWIs investment 3-fold.

Although the women we trained received no money for offering hygiene and health trainings, they still offered 869 workshops to 46,600 people. This outcome aligned with GWWIs field research conducted by GWWIs summer interns from CMC and Scripps. GWWI discovered that women understand the importance of this knowledge and spread it with or without payment. Whereas men, with the same knowledge will only share the knowledge if there is payment.

GWWI women also had more earning power with their new WASH knowledge. Before attending GWWIs training program, women earned an average of $81/mo, mostly as subsistence farmers. They were able to increase their income adding an average of $289.50 to their income through their WASH products and services.

How has Covid-19 effected your efforts?

2020 was the first time in 13 summers Bulos was unable to travel to Africa to train grassroots women. But something surprising — but not surprising — happened. Because of the women’s expertise in hygiene and health, they were tapped to lead Covid-19 task forces. They distributed soap they made, used their sewing skills and materials that were meant to make reusable menstrual pads to make masks, and offered life-saving community hygiene practices to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

How did you get into water?

She calls her an accidental activist. She was a professional jazz singer and preschool teacher in NYC and was meant to be in the World Trade Center when the planes hit. In response, she wrote a peace anthem called We Rise (her version of We are the World), and gave away all her belongings, and took her back pack and guitar to build grassroots movement called the Million Voice Choir to sing the song from around the planet. She used the metaphor — and her personal mantra — ‘it takes a single drop of water to start a wave’ and invited people to see themselves as powerful drops of water, that when united, could make powerful change in the world. She began to be known as the water lady and was invited to sing at the United Nations Water for Life Conference. She learned about the water crisis and her metaphor turned into her cause. She won $10,000 from Queen Latifah for CoverGirl for women changing the world through music. She took the money and launched her first water projects in the Philippines, her country of heritage. She won Best Social Entrepreneur awards from the World Economic Forum, Ernst Young, Echoing Green and others. Then she was invited to Africa where she opened Global Women’s Water Initiative. To date, her programs have provided clean water and sanitation to over a million people in Asia and Africa. She traveled for 10 years straight having no permanent address and for most of the decade — not receiving a salary. She traveled to over 50 countries performing, speaking and offering trainings. She finally settled down in the Bay Area in 2010, was invited to teach social entrepreneurship at Stanford, and was recruited at CMC to launch Kravis Lab for Social Impact.

Learn more about Global Women’s Water Initiative and Gemma