Africa University 25th Graduation Ceremony
Towards affordable, reliable, sustainable energy for all

COAL-COOKINGVirginia Muwanigwa Correspondent
This is one of a series of articles analysing progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment 15 years post the adoption of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and ahead of the adoption of their successor, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy is a prerequisite for economic development, poverty reduction and sustainable development. Thus, the inclusion of energy among the SDGs is a clear improvement on the MDGs.

Load shedding in Sadc has become so constant that it contradicts the regional goal to ensure industrialisation and in turn economic growth. Efforts by power utilities to manage demand have even led to quips that electricity utilities in the region are the only producers known to discourage customers from using their products.

SDG 7 on energy will “by 2030 ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services”. This is a tall order against statistics that show a very low ratio of access among the world’s people.

A UNDP policy brief on gender and energy, for example, notes that: only one in five people in the world have access to electricity; only 24 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity and 25 countries are in a state of power crisis; three billion people, largely in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia rely on traditional fuels such as wood, dung, and agricultural residue for cooking, agro-processing and heating; in Ethiopia, DR Congo, Tanzania and Uganda biomass accounts for as much as 93 percent to 95 percent of the total energy consumed, reflective of many countries in the region; and two million people (mainly women and children) die because of the burning of biomass indoors.

The gender dimension of energy, mostly overlooked in national, regional and international policies, is that women carry an onerous burden of producing, distributing and using of energy, especially in poor communities.

“Although access to more modern energy alternatives will not necessarily lead to greater equality in gender roles, it can at least relieve some of the most burdensome and unhealthy aspects of their daily lives and expand the development options available to women, their families and their communities,” notes the policy brief.

The statistics above show that while basic services such as electricity for lighting and cleaner cooking technologies are still out of reach for many rural women and men, modern energy would ease the “daily household burdens of women, giving them more time, improving their health and enhancing their livelihoods”.

Because rural and more recently urban and peri-urban women and girls are primarily responsible for the bulk of fuelwood collection, involving walking many kilometres, they suffer from time poverty. While poverty is commonly manifest in lack of physical assets such as income, credit and or savings, time is one asset lost to women as they carry out their daily chores of gathering biomass for energy. That time could be more gainfully used to participate in socio-economic and political activities as active agents for change at household and family or public level.

Julie Mollins, writing in FORESTS news, notes that for many rural women, the daily task of cooking exposes them to heavy indoor cooking smoke. These women are, for example, three times likely to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and are at a higher risk of death from lung cancer than women who use cleaner fuels.

This is derived from a World Health Organisation global report on burden of disease which notes that household air pollution from burning of solid fuels is among the top three leading risk factors for disease. Nearly two million people each year die prematurely from illness caused by indoor air pollution from solid fuel use.

The second target on energy seeks to substantially increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030. Efforts to harness renewable energy continue but may need to pick up pace against increased requirement for alternative sources of energy to those currently in use. Investment in research and development is an urgent requirement to facilitate in- novation.

The third target under SDG 7 will, if successful, double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030. Efficiency can be greatly improved by investing in low-emission technologies that benefit poor communities, including women. Properly developed and deployed sustainable energy technologies would not only improve livelihoods but mitigate against climate change impacts on the poor in general and rural women in particular.

“Mainstreaming gender in energy policies and programming is good social policy and would enhance the efficiency of energy policies,” argues the UNDP. The programme posits that incorporation of gender perspectives in energy projects, policy and planning is critical in ensuring the effectiveness of not just energy programmes and policies, but of all development activities that involve energy use.

A gender audit done by Botswana Power Corporation showed the need to ensure that energy policies address the key issues faced by women and men as they go about their day-to-day chores at household and public level. The corporation has started a gender mainstreaming programme for rural electrification and a pilot project for collecting gender disaggregated data and strengthening gender expertise in the country’s energy sector.

By 2030, there should be enhanced international co-operation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technologies, including renewable energy, energy efficiency, and advanced and cleaner fossil fuel technologies, and promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technologies.

The UNDP recommends that “climate change financing focusing on the energy sector should complement broader developmental goals, including gender equality, poverty eradication and sustainable development”. Mitigation financing schemes should thus be informed by gender and social impact assessments during programme and project design to expand women’s access to and control over energy, according to the programme. This includes efforts to qualify small-scale projects (such as improved stoves) for financing.

By 2030, global leaders have committed to expanding infrastructure and upgrading technology for supplying modern and sustainable energy services for all in developing countries. Research shows that women generally have less access to finance and energy-related services than men at national level. The UNDP notes that studies from Africa, for example, show that women-headed businesses generally face more impediments than men in accessing grid electricity. Recommendations are that gender-based constraints related to access to energy, finance, training, employment and entrepreneurship need to be better studied and addressed.

  • Virginia Muwanigwa is a gender activist and chairperson of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe. She is also the Director of the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC).

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