Empowering Women Who Have No Voice in Sub-Saharan Africa

In the United States, women are finally being encouraged to speak out and bear witness to their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Many with access to a media platform have seized the opportunity to tell their stories. But what about those in remote, cut-off parts of the developing world who suffer in silence?

There are millions of women and girls without the means to report that they have been assaulted and raped, especially in arid, Sub-Saharan countries where they often need to walk, unprotected, for miles every day to fetch water in remote areas. Fearing retribution for speaking out against their attackers, most remain silent. In addition to suffering physical, mental, and emotional damage, many end up pregnant and infected with sexually transmitted diseases. For most of the young girls, their lives have been irrevocably changed, offering little hope for their future.

One of the most practical ways to reduce the vulnerability of such women and girls is to eliminate the need for them to leave their villages to search for water. With support from the Ruth and Hal Launders Charitable Trust over several years, the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) was able to provide water for drinking as well as irrigation through its Whole Village Solar Electrification project in the communities of Bessassi and Dunkassa in Benin in West Africa. This project changed forever the lives of the women and girls there. No longer do they have to fear the threat of brutal attacks when collecting water. So successful was the Launders-supported project in Benin that SELF is about to launch a similar one in Uganda.

Of course, solar-powered pumps alone cannot prevent every sexual assault. Our intent is that the technology will be coupled with education, public outreach, and strictly enforced laws to protect the women from inappropriate and often brutal assaults.

Whether in a remote village in Uganda or in a modern urban setting in the industrialized world, women deserve to live with dignity and the confidence that they are safe from predation. While the revolution has begun in the U.S., let us not forget the women in Sub-Saharan Africa—and elsewhere in the developing world—who can start to affect change with something as basic as a solar-powered water pump.


Contributed by Guest Author: Robert Freling. Robert is Executive Director of the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization that has been on the cutting edge of delivering solar solutions to rural villages since 1990. Under his leadership, SELF has pioneered the use of solar power for a wide range of applications including household lighting, water pumping, school electrification, drip irrigation and wireless Internet access. SELF has completed projects in 20 countries, making it a leader among non-governmental organizations in providing practical and cost-effective renewable energy alternatives for the developing world.

Fluent in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese and Indonesian, Mr. Freling holds a B.A. in Russian Studies from Yale University, and an M.A. in Communications Management from the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California. Mr. Freling is the recipient of the 2008 King Hussein Leadership Prize.