Smart Technology Can End "Time Poverty" for Women

BlogHer Original Post

On Friday, March 11, I saw an interesting panel at the Women in the World Summit on how clever technology accelerates women's economic opportunities in third world and developing nations. It opened with some bleak facts: Women perform 66% of the world's labor, but earn 10% of its income and own 1% of the production. (My friend forwarded me this great ad that ran in the UK for International Women's Day that also relayed these facts with Dame Judi Dench and my favorite actor, Daniel Craig.) Part of the reason women labor so hard is that they must perform back-breaking, but menial tasks like fetching water from miles away, before they can get anything done. Technology developed with women in mind changes that.

Woman Getting Water

The panel was moderated by Cheryl Dorsey, the President of Echoing Green. Echoing Green invests in and supports outstanding emerging social entrepreneurs to launch new organizations that deliver bold, high-impact solutions. The speakers were Pam Darwin, Vice President of Geoscience at Exxon Mobil Production Company; Solar Sister Eva Walusimbi from Uganda; and Jocelyn Wyatt, Social Innovation Lead from IDEO. They spoke eloquently about the "time poverty" that women are trapped by; again, it is hard to be as efficient as possible when you must spend the first several hours of the day carrying water.

When technology tries to solve problems -- like building water filtration plants so that women have access to clean water -- predominantly male designers in other nations tend to not think about the end user: women. For example, Wyatt spoke about a woman, Shandi, she met in India who still fetched water from a pump even though a new water filtration plant opened in her city. Shandi knew that the pump water was making her sick and that it would be better to use the other water. However, there were several logistical issues. Shandi usually carried a 12 liter pail several kilometers to get water from the pump, but the water plant required people to use 20 liter buckets. Shandi could not carry such a heavy bucket. Her husband could not go with his motorbike to get the water because the plant opened after he had to be at work and closed before he got out. Further, the plant required people to pay for 20 liters of water, but Shandi and her husband used only 10 and could not afford to spend money on more than they could use. The technology was there, but it made no sense because no one bothered to speak to women like Shandi before they designed and implemented the system, so it did not help her.

Darwin and Walusimbi spoke about the challenges faced by women in Uganda when it came to light. Women must get all there work done in the day because there is no electricity at night in many parts of the country. (Walusimbi said that although she is privileged to have power in her town, it is not reliable.) Girls must help their mothers after school, and by the time they finish, it is dark so they are unable to study. Cooking at night is done by candles or with kerosene-wicked lighting. The smoke is dangerous to breathe and there are often fires.

One solution Walusimbi promoted, with the help of funding from Darwin, was solar lanterns. The women bring the lantern outside while they work in the day and they have a safe source of light at night. Girls are better able to study, women don't have to cook in the dark, and some even use them to operate businesses on the side. She formed an Avon-like network of saleswoman to reach out to their neighbors and sell the lamps, allowing them to derive additional income.

When technology aids women, it empowers them in many ways. They can work less but earn more. When they earn more, Walusimbi pointed out, they also have more voice in how things are done. (Approximately 90% of women's income goes back into the community as they improve their families' nutritional needs, buy education for their children, etc.). When Exxon had a contest and offered grants to women's technology projects, they estimated that 13,500 people would be impacted directly and 475,000 would be impacted indirectly in two years.

These are the investments that we should be making in technology.

Suzanne also blogs at CUSS and Other Rants and is the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track.

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