Today marks International Women’s Day (8th March) and, at Renewable World, we are particularly aware of the link between energy and the development of women. Lack of access to energy affects all members of a community, but women are disproportionately affected due to cultural norms in many societies which result in differentiated responsibilities between men and women when it comes to collection and use of energy sources. Energy access is innately linked to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), particularly those concerning women, and can help to achieve targets to end poverty, improve maternal health, and strengthen gender equality.
The link between energy and poverty has a pronounced gender bias. In poor communities, women are the main energy users as well as primary energy suppliers. It is women, for example, who must spend long hours gathering traditional fuels, such as wood, grass or dung, and suffer the health consequences of carrying heavy loads, as well as from the pollution of burning traditional fuels for cooking and heating. However, the wasted time and drudgery of fuel collection and manual food processing such as milling and grinding can be significantly reduced with access to modern energy services.
There are numerous health impacts associated with smoke inhalation, particularly respiratory illness, eye disease, lung cancer, and low birth weight; all of which contribute to increased mortality rates which are significantly highly for women and girls. Infants are particularly vulnerable, since they are often carried on their mothers’ backs while they are cooking, exposing them to hazardous smoke at a time that is crucial for their physical development. However, this trend can easily be reversed. Energy for cooking consumes more energy than any other single activity in most developing countries. Replacing traditional cooking methods with clean cooking practices can have an enormous impact on women’s health, well being, and income generating opportunities. Indeed, it has been acknowledged that improved cooking practices can contribute to achieving every single one of the MDGs.
In addition to the health problems that women suffer from collecting and using traditional fuels, fuel collection takes up valuable time which could be spent instead on crucial aspects of development such as education and income-generating activities. In the developing world girls are traditionally called upon to fetch firewood or other fuels for cooking and heating, posing a challenge to their continued education. This can perpetuate gender inequality into adulthood, with women being less able to find time for employment or further education. The long distances walked to collect fuel also create an additional economic burden on the poor since women are unable to work to generate an income for their family.
Again, provision of clean, reliable and affordable energy can reverse this cycle of gender inequality and under-development. As well as the additional time saved from the drudgery of traditional fuel collecting, energy can stimulate enterprise by providing electricity for the development of micro-businesses. Indeed, this year’s theme of International Women’s Day “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures” seeks to highlight the potential of business partnerships in which women play a central role. Access to energy can stimulate the creation of many home-based enterprises, particularly those closely related to traditional female roles such as cooking, hairdressing, clothes washing, and tailoring. Furthermore, electricity can increase the opening hours of shops, which can in turn increase the flexibility of daytime activities.
Addressing energy poverty in poor communities is therefore critical to the development of women, and offers a great deal of potential to make strides towards gender equality and female prosperity. Financial constraints and community capacity building continue to pose a barrier to sustainable development in poor off grid communities. However, the work of Renewable World is helping some of the world’s poorest communities to overcome such barriers, and improve the conditions and lives of women in East Africa, South Asia, and Central America. Women such as Kamala from in Nepal who thanks to electric lights powered by a wind turbine can see to cook and clean in her home without inhaling toxic fumes, and Carla, a nurse from Nicaragua who is able to able to give life saving vaccines and treatments to the villagers in her community thanks to a solar powered fridge and lighting in her remote coastal clinic.
As well as providing up-front capital to kick-start market activity through the provision of affordable clean electricity and cooking fuel services in off-grid communities, Renewable World is helping to harness the entrepreneurial spirit and talent of local people to promote opportunities for all members of the community. With continued support and ambitious targets, Renewable World is hopeful of continuing to make a meaningful contribution to the development of women in 2012 and beyond.