How water vending machines breathe new life into women’s empowerment in India

Parity in the participation of men and women in the labor force in a country can better reflect the notion of gender roles – and the status of gender equality – in society. India’s female labor force participation rate has been historically low. According to World Bank estimates, it was around 20% in 2019, compared to more than 30% in Bangladesh and almost 34% in Sri Lanka.

Many unpaid jobs are forced on women, from household chores to caring for children and the elderly in families. Distorted notions of gender roles prevent women from seeking employment in the formal labor market and in the organized sector. The low turnout has little to do with education. The recent All India Survey on Higher Education (2019-20) report by the Ministry of Education highlights that women in India now hold a 49% share of the total higher education enrolment. India leads the world in producing female STEM graduates. More than 42% of STEM graduates in 2018 were women – participation is better than many developed countries. In contrast, it was around 34% in the United States, around 27% in Germany and around 32% in France and Canada.

But the higher school enrollment rate does not seem to translate into a higher employment participation rate in the organized sector. Incorporating jobs, the ratio is skewed 71:29 in favor of men. It must be concluded that women in India do not have the same job opportunities. The soft power of cultural influence continues to influence what women can do with their “higher” education and keeps women less economically empowered.

In addition, gender wage inequality is also quite high. According to The India Wage Report 2018, ILO, women are paid 34% less than men for the same job with the same qualification according to NSSO data from 2011-12. During the same period, 68% of female casual workers in rural areas received less than the national minimum wage of 122 rupees/day (it was expected to be around 178 rupees/day by the end of 2021), while that it was only 47% for men.

When women earn less than their husbands, it has a direct impact on various aspects of their quality of life, ranging from simply being able to buy sanitary napkins for menstrual protection or making decisions about their health, household and family visits.

ATMs for women’s empowerment

The economic empowerment of women can significantly improve their socio-economic and political status. While getting women to take up STEM jobs and run businesses on their own is a big challenge, it can still be achieved. Safe Water Network’s Small Water Enterprises is a success story worth replicating.

We launched water vending machines in 2008 in rural India. Automated tellers are automated water dispensing units that provide communities with drinking water 24/7. The original objective was simply to provide local communities with a convenient and reliable supply of clean water at an affordable price. It wasn’t a women’s empowerment project to begin with. However, in 2016 we introduced a crucial element into the equation: expanding the role of women in the water sector.

Today, Safe Water Network has 56% women operating and managing their water ATMs. They are affectionately called “Water Aunties” by the local community. Several model changes were made to the model and program to incorporate women to become Water Aunties. Technological innovations have been introduced like 24×7 vending by coins or the use of prepaid RFID cards so that women are not stuck at the water ATM. To facilitate operation and functional reporting, each water ATM is equipped with a remote monitoring system that provides parametric measurements every 15 minutes on the operation of the plant such as the volume of water produced and sold, the water quality, consumer participation, etc. Audiovisual digital training modules have been created. learn in the local language at their own pace, and a local field service entity has been set up for maintenance and repair. These water vending machines have been operating with less than 2% downtime during the Covid pandemic. About 3,000,000 people buy water every day from our iJal networks of water vending machines.

Most water stations are owned and operated by female social entrepreneurs. These social entrepreneurs in the iJal value chain, in turn, employ female operators and run the business with our technical and managerial support. But the project must indeed remove many social, political and institutional obstacles for women to leave their homes and occupy technical and management positions in the water sector. In India, the water sector is dominated by men. Women make up only 17% of India’s workforce in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector. Only a fraction of policy makers, regulators, managers and technical experts are women.

To motivate and mobilize women, we have developed a unique strategic framework called QUIT which stands for question, undo, involve and trust. Most rural families accuse working women of neglecting household chores such as raising children, maintaining the house and caring for the elderly. The women themselves generally lack confidence and the necessary professional skills. Through campaigns, women are encouraged to challenge barriers and stereotypes around their roles. Meetings are held and local leaders are invited to give motivational talks. Activities are organized to encourage women to free themselves from age-old attitudes, norms and behaviors.

We also found that women in the field fear jobs that involve technical skills. Therefore, we provide technical training and life skills to help them get rid of their fear of technology and gain self-confidence. Women are trained in the operation and management of automatic water dispensers to work as cadres in the field. Women are empowered to make decisions in the management of SWEs. They acquire financial knowledge, operational knowledge and management skills. They are also employed as “community mobilizers” whose role is to educate residents on the use of drinking water and register them as customers.

To expand the Water Aunties program in 2021, in collaboration with the SEWAH Alliance – Sustainable Businesses for Water and Health, an initiative supported by USAID, the program along with other Water ATM NGOs and industry partners private sector, have extended the program to 25 cities in 11 Indian states. creating over 550 female operators and over 150 female entrepreneurs. We have trained over 110 active female Self Help Group (SHG) members in the use of field test kits to test water quality.

Dual Driven Women Empowerment

Today, there is broad consensus among development agencies and policy makers that to create lasting and transformative change in women’s lives, the focus should not be exclusively on economic empowerment. One effective way is to address all social, cultural, legal and political barriers to full gender equality, which grassroots women’s organizations (GWOs) do extremely well. Locally based and women-led, GWOs empower women and advance women’s rights on multiple fronts.

Water ATMs are women’s empowerment in the truest sense of the word and act like GWOs because they not only ensure women’s economic success and independence, but also enable them to engage in productive activities. They free them from the role of water collectors. Like cooking, collecting water is considered female work. A UNICEF report calculates that women living in water-deprived households in countries like India spend more than 250 minutes a day on water-related tasks. The time spent collecting water should ideally be spent on their productive work or education. By providing clean, affordable water closer to home, ATMs take the drudgery out of women fetching water.

These water vending machines have become water literacy resource centers, a beacon for women’s empowerment and a center for citizen engagement working with municipalities on various water programs like water collection. rooftop rainwater, Jal Shakti Kendras for water conservation, non-revenue water reduction, water quality monitoring and monitoring.

Water ATMs also equip women for technical jobs, management positions and entrepreneurship in the water sector. Women are now proving that they can be the “agents of change” and propel a nation to achieve water security at the community level. Their growing involvement in the water sector empowers them in all facets of personal and social life.



The opinions expressed above are those of the author.


Mara R. Wilmoth