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Lack of access to clean energy is debilitating for women in the developing world – not just for the obvious reason that women and girls tend to be at home more, so are likely to suffer more from the effects of inhaling cooking and kerosene fumes.
In most countries, women and girls are also the ones responsible for gathering cooking fuel, often trudging for hours every day to collect and carry bundles of wood or other fuels and then spending hours bent over smoky fires or stoves to cook the family meal.
This sucks up vast amounts of time that could be far better spent in education, income-generating work – or simply socialising. In many countries, particularly in areas of conflict, travelling long distances to gather fuel also exposes women to risk of violence or sexual assault.
It's women and girls who, without access to radio or TV, remain trapped in traditional roles, with no alternative role models to aspire to. And because many societies still perceive women as care-givers, it’s also often women who carry the greatest burden of worry about their children's wellbeing.
The great irony has always been that, while energy could make such a difference to women’s lives, until now, few of them have been involved in the sector. Across the world, energy has traditionally been a masculine sphere. The vast majority of people who work in the traditional energy sector are men – not just running the big energy companies, but installing the supply and distribution infrastructure.
Now, however, the growth of sustainable energy solutions is beginning to change all this, breaking down the barriers to their involvement in the provision of energy.
We’re seeing many more examples of women leading clean energy businesses, and of businesses training women to sell solar equipment – and in some cases, installing and repairing it too. This is helping erode concepts of what constitutes an ‘appropriate’ job for a woman, at the same time as boosting their confidence and self-esteem.
There is also an increasing number of for-profit businesses and charities that are demonstrating huge creativity and ingenuity in increasing access to solar electricity in some of the remotest areas in the world. Solar-powered electricity means girls can study after dark and their mothers have the opportunity to do income generating activities. It allows mobile phones to be charged, giving access not just to calls and texts, but internet and mobile money and information about the wider world.
Modern stoves and cleaner fuels for cooking and heating relieve women from the time-consuming drudgery and danger of travelling long distances to gather wood, as well as saving time cooking and cleaning pots. There are growing numbers of socially oriented businesses around the world doing this – developing stoves that are affordable, accessible and aspirational for women.
The recent announcement by the International Sustainable Energy for All Initiative that the first two years of the 2014-24 Decade of Energy Access for All will focus on women and girls provides hope for a renewed focus on energy for women.
Right now, the proposed new Sustainable Development Goals, designed to set the world on a more sustainable development path, are currently under development. These are set to replace the internationally negotiated Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015. It is critical that these goals include specific, timed targets to increase women and girls’ access to clean cooking and electricity.
We must not miss this opportunity to place the empowerment of women through energy access firmly on the international development agenda.
Ashden’s #Volts4Women campaign, timed to coincide with our international conference on 20 May, aims to raise awareness of this issue, which for so long has been neglected. We want to make sure that energy for women and girls is firmly on the international development agenda – and stays there. Please help us spread the word about women’s need for clean energy. Help give women power.
Greenway Grameen and the Sakhi Unique Rural Enterprise are finalists for the 2014 International Ashden Awards.
Follow #Volts4Women on twitter.
Photo credit: Ashden