This blogpost was written for a favorite blog of mine, Dr. Linda Scott’s DoubleXEconomy.
Technology has the power to help impoverished women in low-resource areas radically increase their productivity and escape poverty. This is precisely what happened over the last century in the developed world: the innovations of household electricity and running water unleashed a parade of labor-saving devices. Over the 20th century dishwashers, electric stoves, washing machines, dryers, mixers, and food processors became standard. Each automates domestic tasks previously accomplished through hard, tedious, time-consuming female effort.
Indeed, Gapminder’s Hans Rosling opines that the washing machine is the industrial revolution’s most liberating invention:
A century later over a billion women still lack modern labor saving devices. Their days are filled fetching and hauling wood, transporting water, doing laundry with basins and washboards. Many also are smallholder farmers, without even farm animals to assist them, toiling with hand-held heavy hoes. They spend endless hours hand-grinding grain, shelling corn, and stirring food cooked over open fires, with infants on their backs and children underfoot. A recent FAO publication entitled Running Out of Time focuses on this squandering of women’s labor, using an evocative description: Time Poverty.
Carol Cunningham, the dynamic founder of the Gambian Women’s Initiative, headed a delegation of women from Wilmington, Delaware, who traveled to meet Gambian village women. They compared their days. The African women spend so many hours a day on tedious, labor-intensive domestic tasks—plus child and eldercare—that almost no time remains for income-generating activities.
My recent book, 100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women, features inspiring solutions. We clearly understand how to redesign tools for low-resource regions and how to harness markets to expand distribution. Yet families remain stuck in the poverty trap of using women’s labor incredibly inefficiently. Why?
Running Out Of Time highlights two major inhibitors of women’s technology adoption.
- In patriarchal culture, men control the purse strings. Women’s assets are limited to micro-savings or, say, small livestock like goats or chickens. They are understandably reluctant to invest these meager resources on new, unfamiliar tools disapproved of by their husbands, especially when facing daily expenses.
- Men are the gatekeepers of technology. Traditional gender segregation can be so extreme that neither gender understands the other’s tasks and work.
Therefore, when an innovation like improved cookstoves comes along, women lack purchasing autonomy. Men run the family purchasing department, but having little idea how women cook, see no reason to spend money on a new type of stove. That it would both free up their wives’ time and pay for itself over a short period in lowered fuel costs does not make the sale. Why?
This brings us to the underlying reality: patriarchy’s devaluation of women’s time. To men, women’s labor is invisible. Women themselves do not even generally report domestic chores as work, development specialists have found. If women’s time is perceived as having no value, there is no concept of opportunity cost. Why save women work?
The good news is that there are workarounds. Financial inclusion provides women access to savings and simplifies transactions. Literacy and education, along with ICT, help women acquire information useful for end-running the gatekeepers.
One clever approach is to create “girlie-tech” gendering tools so that men in the household will not appropriate them, such as OxFam’s pink cellphone initiative:
“And the pink colour? This came about after Nanda mentioned a project where she’d bought bicycles for the women to enable them to travel more easily. She had made them pink, so that the men in the village would not use them. This sounded like a fantastic idea and we decided to make the phones pink as well.” – Chaliya Sophasawatsakal, Oxfam
WelloWater is bringing an affordable water roller to market in India which halves the amount of time for this task. Cynthia Koenig, head of the company, has discovered that men like the roller so much they volunteer to help their wives with water provision. Carrying water is women’s work, but apparently rolling water is cool.
Women’s groups are an extremely effective way for promoting and acquiring labor saving tech.
In Bolivia, Sobre La Roca works with Cedesol to distribute solar box stoves. These sturdy, freestanding ovens eliminate the need for gathering wood, saving many hours. Since solar cooking does not burn the pot’s contents, it frees women up from standing over pots, stirring them to avoid burning the food. And because the food doesn’t burn, clean up is faster. One of their workshops is for women, providing tools and training for each participant to build her own stove. This results in a pride of ownership, high uptake of the stoves, and increased comfort with tools.
Women’s agricultural self help groups can jointly purchase manual equipment to save each member hours or days of tedious labor. Most of us have never seen a paddy thresher, but Madhulika Singh of the CSISA (Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia) reports that with its use, what once took women days now takes hours. One village cooperating in the Gambian Women’s Initiative purchased a rice milling machine, collectively running the business. It draws customers from surrounding villages, both generating income and saving farmers thousands of hours.
Microfranchising also shows great promise in incorporating women in the marketing chain.Solar Sister, for example, provides a business in a bag, stocked with wide array of solar-charging lights, solar panels, and improved cookstoves. Their sales force develops local expertise and can make a compelling case to other women. Male salesmen focus on a solar panel’s power and output; female reps focus on lifestyle benefits, emphasizing that the client’s kids will have smoke-free, high quality lights for evening studying.
In my research for 100 Under $100, one surprise was, given the great emporiums of household tools we enjoy in the rich world, how little attention has been given to designing appropriate tools for women in low resource settings. There is the improved corn sheller and not much else. Exactly one manual washing machine innovation, the GiraDora (a large pedal-operated salad spinner affair) is in the works, but not even on the market yet. A billion women do laundry manually!
There is money to be made eliminating low-income women’s time guzzlers, and billions of hours of women’s time to be liberated.