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The Ripple Effect:
Unilever on Why Women's Equality Hinges on Water

As World Water Week draws to a close in Stockholm, Sweden, issues of gender equality have been brought into sharp focus with a growing acknowledgement among business leaders that the global water burden still falls overwhelmingly on women.

As World Water Week draws to a close in Stockholm, Sweden, issues of gender equality have been brought into sharp focus with a growing acknowledgement among business leaders that the global water burden still falls overwhelmingly on women.

A joint report released earlier this year by Unilever and various NGOs, Water for Women, outlines some stark statistics. It found that on average, women and children in developing countries collectively spend 200 million hours each day collecting water. This time is often spent walking large distances, queuing or waiting for irregular supplies to come out of taps.

This has effectively created a ripple effect, whereby time lost due to walking or waiting for water means that women and girls are missing out on education and economic opportunities. According to UNICEF, one in four girls do not complete primary school compared to one in seven boys. However, school enrollment rates for girls have been shown to improve by over 15 percent when provided with good access to clean water and a toilet facility.

Unilever’s VP of Global Dishwash, Hanneke Willenborg, has been in Stockholm this week raising awareness of the issue. As she told Sustainable Brands: “There is a collective understanding that much too time is wasted in women doing their domestic duties in regards to water — that is time wasted not only for themselves, but for their families and their communities.

“What we know is that once women make an earning, they will invest that time back into their families and communities. What we see is that investing in these women will have a ripple effect also for the generations after,” she said.

Unilever is using its global influence to try and tackle these issues head on with a series of interventionist measures based on a ‘3Rs’ framework:

  • Recognize there is an issue
  • Reduce the number of hours spent collecting water
  • Redistribute the load by splitting water tasks more fairly among both women and men.

But providing better water access — and sanitation/hygiene — is what will address the root of the problem.

Unilever is piloting two initiatives on this front. In partnership with Oxfam, it has set up two water centers in Nigeria, run by women from the local communities, which provide clean water that can be collected and recycled for domestic activities. The centers also educate families in using water responsibly so they can get the most from limited supplies. Willenborg reports that the centers are already saving women on average three hours a day.

The other initiative, involving social enterprise NextDrop, centers around a text messaging service to alert people when water will be available from their household taps.

“Around 30 percent of people around the globe have access to water taps in their houses, however their supply of water is irregular and interrupted,” Willenborg says. “The reality is that people don’t know when their water is going to come in, so they have to sit at home next to the tap.”

This is the case for the vast majority of people living in the city of Mysore, India, where the first trial is underway. The intervention is simple — those participating in the scheme receive a free text message when their water is about to switched on.

“I have spoken to women who are literally saying, ‘You have set me free’ — that is so extremely impactful,” says Willenborg.

The scheme is also providing valuable data for the region’s water utility providers who previously didn’t know when and where water valves were being switched on. Over time, this information should also help detect problems around infrastructure supply, such as leaks, aiding quicker repair.

Both pilots are intended to scale. “We have committed to opening 10 water centers by the end of year. Our intention is go to 1,000 [water centers] by 2020,” Willenborg says.

The initiatives are being measured against various performance indicators such as financial sustainability and social impact, and Unilever is due to release full learnings later in the year.

On a wider level, the unveiling of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) should also act as a nudge factor, given that two of the goals clearly address water/sanitation availability, and equality/women’s empowerment. Willenborg sees the two goals as very much interlinked.

“If you want to drive greater equality, you really need to intervene on water in order to get there,” she says.

For now, she is calling for more businesses engagement on these types of social development issues, emphasizing that corporations have a key role to play in terms of not just raising awareness, but in helping to drive innovation, particularly around product development and service delivery.

“For many companies I think there is still a view that CSR is something that should be done next to the business,” Willenborg pointed out. “What we are striving for at Unilever is making sure that finding the solutions for these global issues is really at the core of our business. We would definitely call upon other companies as well to help drive this.”


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