The bleak stereotype too many have of African women is that they are poor, oppressed, voiceless victims. But if everyone in the world were all paid one dollar for each hour they work, African women would actually be the millionaires. At Maji Safi Group (MSG), my co-founder, Max Perel-Slater, and I have had the privilege of witnessing what really happens when you employ African women and tap them to lead. What we found from our organization can empower you to make women’s empowerment a men’s issue as well.
We formed MSG in 2013 around the power of women, in rural Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria. Some of the women there have lost family members to preventable and treatable threats, like drinking or bathing in water from contaminated, open water sources. But despite their suffering, African women know grit, endurance and hope.
According to the World Bank, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) efforts are six to seven times more effective when led by women. Our employees are 80% women — Consolata, Aska, Prisca, Winner and others who serve as Community Health Educators. Armed with knowledge about how to keep their families and communities healthy and empowered with new confidence, these women go boldly into homes, schools, workplaces, churches and hospitals.
And with their leadership, we have helped more than 365,000 people embrace live-saving WASH practices and stand up to chronic diarrhea, cholera and other deadly waterborne diseases.
These women are game-changers -- they're nimble, smart, caring and proud — and do they ever have voices. If you want your organization to soar and surpass your most ambitious goals, you should do everything in your power to unleash the power of women. Three reasons why:
1. Women are consummate community builders. I was excited to start Maji Safi Group because we thought that an organization centered around women would lead to strong engagement and success. There is an African proverb that says if you educate the women, you educate the community. A dollar made by a woman is also more likelyto be invested in her family and community than a dollar made by a man. This is true all around the world. Whether in the United States during and after World War II or in China over the last 50 to 60 years, women have been catalysts for growing economies.
In Tanzania, we also find that women often lead with a holistic, “We’re all in this together” perspective, which advances knowledge at lightning speed. Women see knowledge as power only if it’s shared as freely and as far as possible to benefit all around them. Our Community Health Educators do not see silos of men and women, young or old.
They see everyone in the community — hopefully thriving as a whole. So they innovate and come up with solutions — like how best to reach local fishermen dying of preventable and treatable diseases like schistosomiasis. Women trusted and empowered to make a change can move mountains. They will overturn decades of unhealthy practices.
2. Women inject heart and soul into problem solving because it’s not only humane but smart and strategic. Because they have empathy for the families around them, our team and community readily seize on solutions. They display a generosity of spirit to pay it forward. When our female students learned about better hygiene and sanitation, they eagerly hosted communal meals to teach their mothers, aunts and female guardians. The heart has a wisdom we need to listen to if we want to be smarter in our organizations at solving the thorniest issues.
3. Women are pragmatic, tenacious problem solvers. Day after day, during droughts or the middle of a cholera outbreak, we see women rise up and do what is needed with little fanfare and a lot of good humor. Take Dorothy Ochieng, our Female Hygiene Program Manager.
A native of Kenya, Dorothy started with us in 2015 as a graduate student spending long, hot days in the field to help screen the urine and stool samples of thousands of people, so we can get critical baseline data to turn the tide on diseases like schistosomiasis. Dorothy continues to help MSG gather critical data every day and, as Melinda Gates has pointed out, great data leads to seismic change: “We cannot close the gender gap without first closing the data gap."
It was the tenacious women who gathered the first solid data, even on butcher block paper in rural Ethiopia, who helped halve the child mortality rate between 1990 and 2015, Gates said.
Dorothy is one of the new generations of African women. Educated in the United States, she just received her Master’s in Public Health from Washington University in St. Louis in 2016 and has returned to Africa to lead change.