More often than not, consumers find “Made in India” inscribed below the brand label on their clothes. This is a common reminder that India is the fifth largest exporter of apparel to the United States; its garment industry was valued at $3.471 billion in November 2017. But the thriving industry is hindered by a lack of access to clean water and poor sanitation and hygiene. To improve the incomes and health of the employees in the Indian garment industry, which is comprised of 80 percent women, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Gap Inc. have launched the Women + Water Alliance.
The Need to Support Women
Like other garment exporting countries, India fails to meet basic standards of health, natural resource management and population control. For instance, India contributes close to one-fifth of the world’s freshwater pollution because of the unregulated dyeing of garments. Women and girls, who spend almost 150 million hours collecting water annually, regularly come in contact with dye chemicals present in the water and are most impacted by pollution.
As a result of the contamination, they do not have access to clean, safe water or facilities for the appropriate disposal of hygiene products. WaterAid, an international charity organization, stated that women and girls spend 97 billion hours annually searching for toilets, risking their safety to do so. Women juggle household work with seeking better water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), losing out on the opportunity to remain healthy and earn a steady income.
The Women + Water Alliance
On March 22, 2017, World Water Day, USAID and Gap Inc. launched the Women + Water Alliance. It was created in the hopes of increasing awareness about WASH and improving the stature of women disadvantaged by a lack of access to clean water. The alliance works through Gap Inc.’s existing Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement (PACE) program in garment-producing communities. PACE provides women with nearly 80 hours of training on communication and time management skills, designed to increase their efficiency in the industry. It also introduces them to logic and reasoning skills required for decision making and problem-solving, important tools for leadership positions. Adolescent girls are also supported by the program and are equipped with valuable skills needed to build a future for themselves in the garment industry.
Another key aim of the alliance is to support women’s access to WASH services. The approach is gender-sensitive, designed to recognize the different requirements of female sanitary needs. The PACE program also teaches young girls the importance of safe hygiene practices, which is being supported through infrastructural implementation by organizations like CARE and Water.org.
By empowering women through such measures, the Women + Water Alliance is aimed at increasing the number of income earners per household, accelerating their freedom from the poverty trap. When women are educated on the importance of hygiene, they remain healthy for many years. One of the biggest obstacles to breaking out of poverty is when unhealthiness and ailments prevent people from working to earn incomes, and with no income there is no treatment for the condition, leading to an early death without poverty relief. By ensuring better health through increased access to clean water and an understanding of good sanitation practices, this alliance is tackling poverty in a major way.
A Trickle-Down Effect
The Women + Water Alliance treats water as a human right, promoting the message that both men and women should have equal access to it. By reducing the gender inequality in Indian society, women are able to become agents of change and assume positions with more power and decision making. When they are more educated, women will feel like they have an equal position in society, making for an overall healthier community not plagued by feelings of oppression and marginalization. Hence, investing broadly in women’s involvement in the apparel industry can have a local trickle-down effect, where more women aspire to be like the skilled workers in the PACE program and so join the program. This multiplies the intended effect of increased income earners per community.
Clothing is a basic commodity, and supporting the industry behind the brands ensures that more people can rise out of poverty. Tackling access to water is a stepping stone to improving conditions in India and liberating more women, but this would not be possible without American funding.
– Sanjana Subramanian