Approximately 1.2 billion people – almost one fifth of the world’s population – live without access to electricity needed for day-to-day activities, such as lighting the home, keeping children and the elderly cool during the summer, charging your phone’s battery or meeting the needs of small enterprises. They use candles or kerosene wick lamps for lighting, and often go days without the ability to communicate with the outside world as they can’t find a place to charge their mobile phones. Worldwide, 2.8 billion people rely on traditional energy sources like burning wood or animal dung on open fires for cooking and boiling water, which leads to health and economic burdens that predominantly fall on women and girls.
Anywhere from 50 to 70% of people without access to energy are women and girls.
Women and girls bear the primary responsibility for fetching firewood, cooking and other domestic work, making them disproportionately affected by energy poverty across developing countries. 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. Energy poverty, while affecting everyone, has a female face, and addressing this issue in developing countries is essential not only for the environment and sustainable future, but also for gender equality, women’s empowerment and the health of women and girls.
Imagine being a girl in a poor household: You start your day by helping your mother with household chores. This might include fetching firewood for the day’s cooking, which is not only time consuming, but physically hard. Once you have arrived back home – several hours later – you start your domestic chores. You cook inside your small house, on an open fire, and for hours every day breathe in indoor air pollution and smoke coming from the burning biomass, which, according to the WHO, accounts for millions of preventable deaths in developing countries every year.
Once you reach school, you are probably feeling tired and exhausted, making it harder for you to concentrate on studying and learning. When you return home in the afternoon, you’ll help your mother with cooking, cleaning and washing clothes. Not only are you affected by indoor air pollution, but by the time you are ready to open your books and do homework, it is already dark, and there’s no light to read under. Lack of reliable electricity also plagues schools, affecting children’s education not only at home, but in school facilities as well.
For girls and women, lack of energy access also affects their safety and health. Without light, women and girls might feel uncomfortable using toilet facilities at night, and are at a higher risk of violence if they have to walk through unlit areas to get to their destination. Unreliable energy access has clear implications for health care and health facilities. According to WHO, 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. WE CARE Solar, an organization working to address this issue in Nigeria, designed the “Solar Suitcase” to support timely and efficient obstetric care and reduce women’s risk of dying in child birth due to lack of proper lighting. This portable, low-cost solution gives women and girls access to safer child birth, and can be used for other medical procedures and medical and humanitarian settings as well.
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. While access to clean, affordable and reliable energy is essential to all human beings, it is undeniable that the every-day consequences of energy poverty burden women and girls disproportionately. Women and girls cannot be empowered in the dark – until this challenge is resolved, women and girls will not be able to live up to their full potential, and gender equality will remain an aspiration. Bringing girls and women into the light not only empowers them, but their families and communities as well – and that, in turn, translates to a brighter future for all.
Special thank you to Jacob Winiecki from Simpa Networks for insights and expert advice for this piece.
Cover Image: Solar energy customers in Bashveshwara Nagar settlement, Bangalore, India, who had moved from Gujarat to Bangalore to earn income manufacturing cricket bats. Access to clean energy not only helps the families with chores like cooking and heating, but allows them to run their small business more efficiently, and therefore have access to higher and more reliable income. Image courtesy of Michael MacHarg.