Image: Jacob Winiecki
Image: Jacob Winiecki

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.

Image: Jacob Winiecki
Image: Jacob Winiecki

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.

Solar energy customers in Bangalore, India
Solar energy customers in Bangalore, India

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.

Share your thoughts

17 Responses

  1. This is a terrific summary of the irony of “women’s empowerment” often leaving out the critical element: electrical power. I am writing a book on tools to help women work their way out of extreme poverty more effectively, and distributed power – electricity, batteries, fuel – will feature prominently!
    I invite you to see what I am up to there!

    1. Hi Betsy! Thank you so much for your support and positive encouragement! Your book sounds fascinating and definitely tackles such an important issue – I’ll absolutely check it out and keep following your work! We hope to see you here again, and if there is anything I or our great team at Girls’ Globe can do to support, shoot us a message!

  2. Education , operation, maintenance, parts supply.
    The structure of how things work is (some percentage) to gifts of technology. I’ve only heard about new tractors bought by people with no place to get parts — and lack of maintenance

  3. Emma! Thanks for your post! In Uganda I worked on the issue of safe access to fuel and alternative energy. I spent a lot of time talking with women and young girls who were suffering ill health from breathing in fumes from open fires. In alleviating energy poverty I think we need to make sure that women’s voices are heard and cultural and social norms are taken into consideration. Alternative energy must be gradually introduced in order for it to be sustainable especially in communities where there has previously been nothing.

    1. Thank you for your words Diane! I totally agree – infrastructure improvements, whether energy, water or something else, should always be implemented in collaboration with and participation from local communities and people.

  4. Well , if someone took away “electric” , tool, cord, etc. — I’m a building contractor, whew!!, huge slow down, cough, choke. Soon I would recreate hand powered tools and be OK if the playing field was leveled.
    Not now but Pioneer stuff in recent past.
    Yes, a distinct disadvantage for anyone without power. Chimney can be built? Yes, pioneer homes still have soot where it should not be because the draft was unbalanced or the wind was a problem. The challenge: how does everyone get the experience and education needed to live without electricity?

    1. Hello there, and thank you for visiting Girls’ Globe!
      I think the question we need to ask is how do we expand access to clean, renewable and affordable energy for more and more people – and also switch people from using forms of electricity that are bad for the environment to cleaner forms. People in the developed world most definitely need to learn how to live in a manner that is less straining for the environment, but at the same time we cannot expect people in developing countries to cope with less because we are depleting the resources available. I believe there is a solution – and hopefully more and more people will be brought out of the darkness and into the light!

  5. Thanks for a great blog post Emma! It reminds me that we must start thinking holistically for development to be sustainable. Infrastructre, such as electricity is necessary, but we also need to engage policy makers and have the resources to develop skills and knowledge for the improvement of people’s lives.

    1. Thank you for the encouraging words, Julia! Yes, I agree – infrastructure alone wont’ cut it unless we also equip people and communities with the necessary knowledge and skills to utilize that infrastructure in a way that truly empowers them and improves the quality of their lives!

  6. Reblogged this on Mia Joia's Blog and fun stuff and commented:
    I love the way they included spiritual light into actual light, that is, you cannot empower an individual if you cannot bring light into her heart, but how can you keep asking a person to say affirmations, trust programs and initiatives if every time at dusk their lives become dark and are not able to provide a safe environment?

    1. Hi Miajoia!
      Thank you for your comment and for visiting Girls’ Globe! Light plays such a huge role in people’s lives – both in the literal and spiritual sense. We can’t empower people, whether men or women, without giving them access to energy and electricity, which in turn can light up their lives in more ways than just in the literal sense! Thanks again for your comment, and we hope to see you here again!

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