The Gender-Energy-Poverty Nexus

October 19, 2012

 “Access to energy is fundamental to improving quality of life and is a key imperative for economic development.” - Energy Poverty Action, initiative of the World Economic Forum

There is an energy dimension to poverty known simply as energy poverty, which manifests when there is a lack of access to clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy. Energy is opportunity, and imperative to basic activities such as boiling water, storing vaccines, reading at night. Yet, more than three billion people worldwide rely on traditional fuels such as wood, charcoal, dung, and kerosene for cooking and light.

It is well documented that there are more women than men living in poverty. Because of traditional socio-cultural roles, women and girls in developing countries bear the burden / responsibility of collecting fuel for household energy consumption. Women are at the nexus between poverty and energy, so to talk about either it’s necessary to apply a gender lens.

Rural women spend long hours collecting fuel and carrying it home over long distances. The time and labour feeds into another dimension of poverty, time poverty, limiting women’s ability to engage in productive or income-generating activities. Sometimes referred to as: women’s invisible work, reproductive work, women’s double burden, women’s double day, time poverty cripples opportunity for education and income generation, which as a result often means her family will remain trapped in poverty.

Women’s health suffers from carrying heavy loads of firewood long distances. In the home, over a makeshift cookstove and lantern, the exposure to smoke from fuel-based cooking and lighting contributes to over 2 million deaths per year. (See, “Fuel for Life: Household Energy and Health” — excellent report by the World Health Organization). After-dark and without light, women suffer disproportionately from energy poverty from reduced security and gender-based violence. 

An estimated 265 million tonnes of greenhouse gases are emitted annually from burning fuel for light gloablly, accelerating the effects of climate change and deforestation. Climate change makes women’s long workday even longer due to  unpredictable rains causing food, fuel and water scarcity and therefore longer treks to collect the necessities. 

The feminization of energy poverty is a vicious cycle impeding sustainable development. Improved access to clean energy is absolutely critical to rural women and girls’ development and empowerment. This year, the declared year of Sustainable Energy for All, let’s remember to keep gender at the centre of discussion and decision-making.

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