Energy serves as an important force that liberates half the population and supports the efforts of promoting women rights worldwide. Why is it right?!
The ninth meeting of the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD-9) in 2001 was the first time that intergovernmental dialogue focused specifically on the relationship between energy and multiple development issues. Before that meeting, much of the early activity related to gender and energy was at the project level and it was not until the new millennium that the issue began to appear in international policy debates. CSD-9 concluded that access to energy services (rather than supplies, fuels, or electricity), in other words the benefits that energy provides, is an essential prerequisite for reducing poverty. The document signed at the end of CSD-9 was also groundbreaking in the sense that it recognizes that there are gender and energy issues both in the North and in the South (UN, 2001).(1)
In developing nations, outdated energy systems disproportionately victimize women, who make up more than 70 percent of the 1.5 billion people living on less than $1 a day. Without access to modern energy technologies, many women spend a great deal of their time working on manual tasks that are inefficient and dangerous.
• Collecting fuel in remote areas miles from home puts women and girls at risk of assault and rape.
• Maintaining inefficient, smoky fires by burning crop residue, animal waste, wood, and untreated coal in poorly designed cook stoves produces indoor air pollution that has been linked to the premature death of more than 2 million women and children every year.(2)
• According to Solar Sister, a women’s enterprise working to eradicate energy poverty, up to 780 million women and children are breathing in toxic fumes and risking their health and lives every day because their sole source of lighting is the kerosene lamp.(3)
• According to WHO (4) , a woman dies every minute from complications related to pregnancy or child birth, and many of those deaths can be attributed to lack of electricity and inadequate lighting.
• It’s not unusual in rural health centers to find a midwife holding a flashlight in her mouth while delivering a baby in the middle of the night.(5)
• Deaths related to biomass pollution kill more people than malaria (1.2 million) and tuberculosis (1.6 million) each year around the world.(6)
Women and men experience the effects of poverty in different ways, and acknowledging the gender-dimensions of energy poverty is crucial so that solutions can be designed to meet those differing needs. There is a relationship between the sexual division of labour and the reliance of the poor on traditional energy sources. The division of labour affects women and men, boys and girls differently. Women generally work in both productive activities and in tasks associated with child-rearing, food processing and cooking, care of the sick and caring for the house. Girls are more likely than boys to provide support in these tasks. The poorer the household, the greater the time, and the physical and health burdens associated with these tasks.
Results from a field visit of the Mary Robinson Foundation Climate Justice to organizations working on energy projects at the grassroots level in Malawi (7) has shown very interesting differences in women’s and men’s energy needs/expectations. Those were as follows:
• Safer deliveries at the health clinic at night.
• Retention of nurses and teachers in the area.
• The availability of equipment at health clinics and schools.
• That a maize milling machine be installed in the village eliminating the current 7.4 km. walk to the nearest mill.
• That a market would open locally obviating the need to travel some distance.
On the other hand, men’s expectations were:
• Using electricity to weld broken bicycle frames
• Recharging batteries.
• Refrigerators for groceries and bottle stalls.
• Opening shops in the village which would give easier access to supplies.
Because of their different and unequal roles in the division of labour, women and men have different needs and may have different priorities and make different trade-offs of their time and energy. For example, Dutta found that women valued smoke reduction on health grounds and to reduce the drudgery entailed in cleaning smoky pots. Men, on the other hand, valued fuel savings above other considerations. ‘Community’ level interventions need to take particular note of this.
Women and girls also work in production, often as unpaid family labor in physically arduous and/or time consuming tasks such as food processing for local markets. The greater the differences in men’s and women’s activities in rural areas, the greater the drudgery for women and girls. A similar pattern is found in income generating activities; women generally have less access to ways of making an income, such as labor, loan guarantees, credit facilities, information and training. These inequalities stem from household, social and cultural discrimination. Hence, women’s capacity to increase their labor productivity and improve their incomes is limited. It has also been pointed out that because of their reliance on ‘traditional’ industries, women’s employment can be threatened by the introduction of more efficient forms of energy. For example, in Bangladesh, the replacement of traditional paddy huskers operated by women, with small-scale mechanized milling has reduced the number of poor women earning income in this field significantly – men have largely taken the jobs in milling. This case underlines the need to analyze energy-related impacts on the poor in ways that show the effects on women and men .(8)
It is important to look at who speaks for communities, how decision making takes place, and to ensure that the voices of minorities and women have been heard. Until the challenge of reducing women’s energy poverty is resolved, women and girls will not be able to live up to their full potential, and gender equality will remain an aspiration.
6- Rice University Jame A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy: The Baker Institute Energy Forum, “Poverty, energy and society.”