International Aid for Women Needs More Energy

What works?
Nov. 4 2013 11:18 AM

Liberation Power

What do women need? Better energy.

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Low-income women carry branches and twigs to use as cooking fuel in Amritsar, India, in 2009.

Photo by Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

There are many reasons for changing our relationship with energy: to mitigate national security problems, minimize exposure to price volatility, develop an energy source that will sustain us for centuries, reduce carbon emissions, and spur innovation. But there’s a less visible yet tremendously important motivation: to elevate the status of women around the world.

Bringing women into energy discussions can also help the planet. While men dominate the professional energy sector, women are the primary decision-makers in both the developed and developing worlds when it comes to household energy. To become more efficient and less wasteful, the solution is clear: We must engage and educate more women in energy. While most international aid policies concerning gender have to do with global health and human rights, it’s time to add energy and sustainability into the mix.

In developing nations, outdated energy systems disproportionately victimize women, who make up more than 70 percent of the 1.5 billion people living on less than $1 a day.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.

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A lack of modern and reliable energy burdens mothers, wives, and daughters with tedious responsibilities. The world’s poorest women are traditionally responsible for planting and harvesting crops, milling grain, and carrying water, leaving them little time for an education or employment outside of the home. The lack of options to work, earn an income, and gain independence perpetuates poverty. It is a cycle that leaves women with few opportunities to improve their circumstances. Those tasks that limit their options today could be mechanized with the introduction of reliable, efficient, and cleaner energy alternatives.

To appreciate how old energy perpetuates a cycle of poverty, it helps to look at the benefits of new energy in the developed world, particularly as we have experienced in the United States.

The commercialization and popularity of novel electrical tools such as the dishwasher and washing machine provided freedom for pursuits beyond menial labor. Chores such as cooking and cleaning were no longer as time-consuming and complicated, and women suddenly had the chance to pursue higher education and to forge their own careers. In turn, American culture began to shift to accommodate working women. Energy served as an important force that liberated half the population.

And, today, that liberty has translated into great influence at home: Women in the developed world shape energy consumption as the primary household decision-makers who often drive choices about family cars, household appliances, and other consumer goods.

Similar changes will take place in the developing world when we promote greater access to electricity and the adoption of modern energy technologies. The advantages would compound: More women in the poorest nations would be able to earn income to alleviate poverty, improve living conditions, and acquire cleaner and more reliable energy services. Women would thus have more choices while retaining the role as energy decision-makers and gaining even greater access to modern technologies. Energy in the developing world would become more efficient and less taxing on human health.

In recent years there have been great strides in that direction. International collaborative projects have begun to distribute smokeless and efficient cook stoves in regions such as Bhutan and Pakistan. Solar cooking is being implemented in places like Chad, Tanzania, and Costa Rica. And plans are underway throughout Asia and Africa to bring modern energy to rural areas. Such efforts so far demonstrate that improvements are possible when there is large-scale social and political will.

The poorest nations could reap tremendous benefits by working to include women at every level of industry. The energy sector is particularly notorious for its gender-based glass ceiling, with remarkably few female executives. Yet research has demonstrated that diversity in the workforce will foster new innovation and raise GDP, in part because women bring novel ideas and experiences into the field.

International policy discussions regarding energy typically focus on economics, security, and the environment, leaving gender issues completely out of the conversation. But by working to improve global access to cleaner and efficient technologies while encouraging more women to take more active roles in shaping the world’s energy transition and related policies, we will be able to achieve a more sustainable future for everyone.

Sheril R. Kirshenbaum is director of the Energy Poll at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow her on Twitter.

Michael E. Webber is deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow him on Twitter.  

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