When Muhammad Yunus pioneered the microfinance industry in the mid-1970s, loaning money to the ladies was a pretty radical notion. (Until 1974, American women could be denied loans and credit cards unless a man was willing to co-sign.)
Today, the large majority of microloans go to women, for very pragmatic reasons. Women have better repayment rates than men. What's more important, women tend to make financial decisions that benefit their children and extended families -- buying malaria-preventing bed-nets instead of beer, for instance. That generates returns well beyond the monetary value of the loans. As we mark the second International Day of the Girl on October 11, I'm calling for a similar recognition of the power and potential of girls, enlisting them in our mission to bring safe, sustainable sanitation to the billions who live without it.
The global sanitation sector is already acting on the lessons learned about the social leverage gained by empowering women. In 2012 alone, the Global Womens Water Initiative provided 16 teams of women from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania with seed grants, training and technical support to develop water and sanitation solutions in their communities. Those projects have improved the lives of over 15,000 people. Women entrepreneurs are also tackling a very basic sanitation issue affecting billions in the developing world: the lack of clean, affordable menstrual supplies. AFRIpads helps drive economic growth in rural Uganda by helping women set up businesses manufacturing reusuable pads. In Rwanda, SHE (Sustainable Health Initiatives) and local women's networks are manufacturing pads from a plentiful, renewable local source: banana fiber.
With Girls Helping Girls, Toilet Hackers is encouraging that DIY, yes-we-can spirit in girls as well to create an army of entrepreneurs. We're identifying existing networks in high-need areas, places where the lack of sanitation is especially crippling. Then we're connecting those girls with their peers in the US, Canada and Europe, through "project in a box," a resource to get girls started on their own world-changing adventures. Our first partners are very likely to be Duta Sanitasi in Indonesia. These teams of 13-year-old girls travel throughout their district, talking to their peers about hand-washing, menstruation management and all things sanitation. Ana Peña, who's heading up Girls Helping Girls, met members of Duta Sanitasi Yogyakarta at the recent World Toilet Summit. "They're amazing," she said. "They're all so curious, full of questions. 'Do you have this problem? How do you do this?' Very eager to reach out!"
Of course, we'll also be learning from and working with others in the social-entrepreneur field. Our friends at Ruby Cup run an educational and outreach campaign with schoolgirls in Kenya, which has made a tremendous difference in girls' lives. ThinkX helps jumpstart productive thinking, for us and everyone we work with. And The Girl Effect, a project of the Nike Foundation, is committed to providing girls with everything they need to become healthy, self-directed adults. I'm looking forward to collaborating with them on the most basic of those needs: safe, clean sanitation facilities.
Three women -- two of whom I've never met -- have had a tremendous influence on my life. One was a high school teacher who took in one of her students, a teenaged runaway whose stepfather was pressuring him to quit school and join the family house-painting business. Gracia Daratt encouraged my father's dreams of going to college and taught him the importance of success through substance, not slickness. Her influence transformed his life, and mine. The second was a young woman who, without any support from her family, chose to carry her pregnancy to term and give the baby up for adoption. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for her. The third is my mother, who has taught me the value of resilience and grace in adversity. Thinking of these women, and the girls they once were, is a big part of my motivation behind Girls Helping Girls. At Toilet Hackers, we want all girls, and all women, to have a chance to live and thrive, to change the world for those around them, just as these three women did.
John Kluge is the co-founder and Chief Disruption Officer of Toilet Hackers.