March is Women’s History Month and a time to consider the historical impact of energy poverty on women and how the futures of women and their families around the world can change with energy access.
Imagine what life would be like without access to modern-day energy sources and you’ll begin to understand the plight of many individuals who live with energy poverty. This is not an easy life and creates fundamental obstacles to change and elevate one’s circumstances.
“A billion people still live without electricity. Hundreds of millions more live with unreliable or expensive power, which poses a key barrier to economic development in emerging economies.” – World Bank
Unsafe and Unhealthy Lighting and Cooking
While many lose the opportunity to study or work after sundown, others use alternative lighting that could pose danger. For example, an estimated 58.3 million people use kerosene to light their homes. Kerosene lamps can easily fall, creating hazardous conditions for anyone in the dwelling and poses the potential threat of burning down the dwelling. Kerosene has been linked to many debilitating medical problems and fatalities. This is just one example of hardships that millions live with on a daily basis.
Living with no access to electricity puts families in the dangerous situation of burning solid fuels like cardboard, wood, or coal to cook. These alternative methods contribute to indoor air pollution exposing an exceptional number of people to life-threatening illnesses.
“Indoor air pollution contributes to 1 out of every 14 deaths in the developing world.” – Bill Gates
Women and Girls Carry the Burden
For those living in first world countries it can be hard to truly understand the life changing impacts possible when reliable energy access is provided. Imagine simply getting access to water if no water is readily available at your home. There are remote communities where women and girls spend hours a day travelling long distances to gather water from local resources. Some may also be responsible for manual water pumping for home or irrigation from a borehole. With the addition of DC water pumps made possible by having reliable electricity, women and girls can be relieved of this responsibility and can then dedicate more time to their education, along with other things. This is a gift of time, but also the unburdening of the physical wear on their bodies.
“In Zanzibar, installing electrified water pumps increased girls’ school attendance and saved women three hours a day.”- OXFAM
A story from Kenya with two smallhold farmers noted “Irrigating the land manually cost around 3–4 hours per day for Jacinta, and 1.5 hours and 20 buckets of water for Daniel. Both farmers reported an increase in yield after using their solar water pump.” – Efficiency for Access, Author Stewart Muir
Cooking without electricity also forces a very time-consuming process to prepare a meal, possibly starting with collecting firewood or fuel. Then, the time it takes to put the ingredients together and cook the meal without the aid of modern appliances can, in total, take hours per meal. If those living with energy poverty had a better solution for reliable energy, they could put more time toward socioeconomic growth: develop a business, further their education, work toward earning extra income, or generally spend time on other aspects of life and family.
This highlights how women are even more impacted because they are typically responsible for the household’s energy supply for cooking, lighting, and heating –with little personal empowerment. The burden of energy poverty would lift if they had access to reliable, safe energy sources and modern appliances for cooking, agriculture, and income-generating endeavors.
This actually goes beyond lighting, heating, water, and cooking, extending to powering refrigerators, televisions, and radios. Refrigeration helps food stay fresher longer and lessens the risks of food-born illnesses. Economically this is a win for any family producing their own food or using their precious finances to purchase food.
Improving Education, Opportunity, and Empowerment
Information and education can spark critical changes that will create real opportunity on many levels.
Radios and television help these families and communities stay up to date with local news, social programs, current conditions, and more.
“…access to electricity empowers women through health, education, gender equality, and domestic violence awareness programs on television. Thus, women are becoming more assertive and confident.” – World Bank Sustainable Development Network
When rural schools have access to reliable power, they are able to offer more value to the children attending especially enhancing the opportunity a young girl may have in life. This starts with better attendance and learning potential but can also result in staying in school longer, potentially marrying and starting a family later. All of these positive changes can position the youth to have opportunities and more choices for their future. Choices create hope and with that comes empowerment.
The Path Forward
It is hopeful to see things are slowly changing to expand energy access to more communities and creating new opportunities to change one’s future potential. Many countries, communities, NGO’s (nonprofit organizations), startups, and financial institutions are working to make a positive difference. They are dedicating resources to programs, creating new and improved products, fixing inadequate regulations, looking at opportunities to balance financial viability and consumer pricing, bringing new opportunities for financing off-grid entrepreneurs, and more.
Along with a greater opportunity to access more energy-efficient devices, costs have been trending downward for renewable energy production and storage for over a decade. This combination of energy access at a lower cost is the winning formula.
Women’s Role in Solutions
To achieve real change in the lives of people faced with the daily challenges of energy poverty, it will be important to have women participate in the conversation and help with the development objectives. If they are part of designing and executing a plan, the plan will work better for the women and girls in these communities that are targeted for future support.
Local cultures and contexts should be considered when developing energy access solutions. Sensitivity to certain traditions or local standards helps assure success. It should be acknowledged that women’s and men’s traditional gender roles and tasks are different, so teams should explore creating solutions that offer strong options for both genders. For example, if women haven’t traditionally received a fair split of the program’s benefits, maybe certain incentives can be offered to women specifically to help broaden the conversation to achieve true empowerment. Their voice is often unheard, so this will assure everyone in the community is being recognized. With new business models, new technology and new mobile platforms, the landscape is changing and access to solutions is getting broader.
“For off-grid electrification, including mini grids, the biggest challenges are poor policies, inadequate regulations, lack of planning and institutional support, lack of financing for off-grid entrepreneurs, and affordability for poorer households.” – World Bank
Solar Power, Modern Energy Access Solutions
For communities with no access or unreliable access to utility power, a properly designed solar power system is vital. Beyond general best practices, there should be a focus on safety, simplicity, future growth, health, access to support, and efficiency. The concept of efficiency extends to the equipment selected for the incoming power, but also extends to the appliances being utilized by the people. This assures every watt is used with thought and the upfront expense is minimized. A zero-waste mentality should be a key driver. Well defined planning for energy access leads to opportunities to advance, and a true path for empowerment.
A community health clinic that has access to reliable energy can help save lives. They will be able to store vaccines and other lifesaving medications requiring refrigeration and provide safe birth services at night. Energy independence for these facilities, along with efficient appliances, and lighting can lower mortality rates and improve general health and life expectancy.
Access to reliable electricity allows families, in particular women and children, to have better options for dignity, gender equality, health, education, and socioeconomic growth and can naturally drive a revenue multiplier.
In summary, when modern, sustainable electricity is readily available, it is strongly correlated to a higher earning potential, better health, and empowerment on many levels. Energy access provides a foundation to help these families and communities have more opportunity to get themselves out of economic poverty with a potential for a higher standard of living.