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Gender, energy and mitigation – Increasing the benefits for all


Ana Rojas, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Gender and Energy Task Manager and coordinator of Gender Equality for Climate Change Opportunities (GECCO), discusses the importance of women’s participation in the energy sector, from improving health and school attendance, to capitalizing on their placement as key stakeholders, and enhancing the economic opportunities presented by women’s inclusion in the sector as technicians, professionals and decision makers. This feature was originally posted by our Asia LEDS Partnership, which you can find here.

When I began my work on the interlinkages between gender, energy and mitigation, I had little understanding of what this meant. Coming from Costa Rica, a country with almost 100% electrification rate and a place where reliance on biomass for cooking is reduced to remote or socially deprived regions that were not a part of my day-to-day experiences, it was hard to picture energy poverty. Also, experiencing power blackouts had been relegated to a childhood memory that included my mother and siblings sitting at the dining table and using a small gas-powered camping light to finish our homework. I still remember how bright its light was and how happy I was I did not need a candle to finish my work.

Unfortunately, energy poverty is a tangible reality worldwide: in the 21st century close to 3 billion people rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating and little over a third of that number (1.1. billion) have no access to electricity, with women and girls bearing the brunt of the problem. Social roles determine that women and girls are by and large the ones responsible for collecting and managing energy sources at household level. Hence, energy poverty has a direct impact on women and girls in terms of drudgery and exposure to hazards –whether health due to smoke exposure, physical lesions as a result of carrying loads of wood and water or exposure to sexual attacks. In addition these chores have a negative impact on girls’ attendance to school as these chores are prioritized instead of their education.

Reliance on traditional fuels or kerosene for lighting is not only inefficient, it brings additional health hazards including exposure to fumes and burns; meanwhile, safety both within and outside a household is greatly increased when there is access to light. In addition, access to electricity means the possibility to power household appliances that ease daily chores as well as make food production and income generation activities more efficient. Learning about these impacts sounded like an exercise in logic or a snap-shot from a distant past.

Just recently I was once again shocked when I learned that in spite of international commitments aiming to ensure universal access to modern energy technologies by 2030, the Global Tracking Framework shows that, in fact we are moving away from the target for modern cooking technologies. Interventions on this area are not keeping up with global population growth, though we may be on track for ensuring access to electricity. This feels as if attention goes to interventions where production is a target while women’s health and traditional roles are insufficiently addressed.

Gender-energy-mitigation-v7_1-300x200 Gender-energy-mitigation-v7_2-300x192

Source: Foster, V. (2016) How can the Sustainable Energy for All Global Tracking Framework contribute to improving our understanding of energy and gender issues? Presentation.

Improving women’s lives, livelihoods and self-esteem (empowerment)

Energy interventions that ensure energy technologies and services are affordable, accessible and appropriate to women end-users can easily contribute to reduce drudgery and increase quality of life of women, girls and all members of a household. But this is just the first step. By understanding women’s participation in economic activities, these interventions can produce exponential benefits. For example, women tend to work in traditional businesses –i.e. food processing, pottery making, – for which electricity may not be the most efficient or affordable energy source. Therefore failing to acknowledge that improved energy access goes beyond electricity generation may inadvertently reduce support to women’s economic activities.

Electrification projects have recently been targeting women entrepreneurs as key beneficiaries in interventions and support. One of these cases is the Enhancing Energy Based Livelihoods for Women Micro-Entrepreneurs, an Asian Development Bank Regional Assistance Programme (TA 7831-IND) implemented by the Energy Department of the Government of Madhya Pradesh, India. Under this initiative, over 20,000 women entrepreneurs were trained on business improvement and benefitted from enhanced energy access and more than 500 enterprises adopted electricity based improvements. The results of the initiative demonstrated that with appropriate enabling conditions, women can make significant contributions to the energy sector and use energy as an instrument for enhancing their livelihoods.

In addition, women’s participation in the energy sector as key stakeholders is slowly being recognized as an important piece of the puzzle. Renewable energy projects are demonstrating how women can benefit from having a direct engagement in the renewable energy value chain. Women’s participation as distributors of renewable energy technologies has proven successful, particularly when reaching the last-mile of the energy market. Women are in a good position to market to other women by relying on their own experiences and distributing information through family and social networks at community level. Moreover, reliance on micro-finance and women associations or self-help groups have also proven particularly useful for ensuring women have access to household energy technologies. In Asia, activities such as Kopernik’s Wonder Women project, in Indonesia, build on the elements above and are good examples of how women can be engaged as distributors of renewable energy technologies.

Women’s contribution to renewable energy production has also been proven. In Vietnam, the Asian Development Bank Harnessing Climate Change Mitigation Initiatives to Benefit Women Regional Technical Assistance (or RETA 7914), designed an intervention strategy to support women and men become biogas masons and start their own biogas companies; where women were already working in the construction sector, as assistants to their male family members –mostly husbands. The project designed a strategy to increase women’s masonry skills, so that they could participate in the biogas training course. Women are now constructing biogas plants with their male counterparts and a few have created their own company.

On the first field visit for identifying women masons, I vividly remember asking one of the women if she thought she could become a mason. Her answer was no, she found it difficult to believe that she’d be able to build a digester by herself. That was something best left for her husband. I remember leaving the interview with the absolute conviction that the main challenge was in convincing herself she was able to do this work. Several months later we met again. To my surprise she had joined the training course! When I asked about her experience, her face lite up and told me how much she had learned, her voice was more self-assured, and then she said: “Now, when I come home, my daughter asks if I have built another digester, like her dad.”

The value of this comment is that the intervention is not only increasing women’s self-esteem and bringing in a higher income that will improve the household living conditions, it is also becoming an example to the girls and boys in the community that women can contribute to economic activities in par with their male counterparts. My hope and belief is that this girl, and many others, will have a broader range of activities to choose from when joining the labor force –perhaps even in the energy sector- and run with the example of what is possible, instead of what is traditionally expected from them.

Gender and the less discussed topics in the energy sector

Women’s participation in the energy sector also means ensuring that women are in a position to join the ranks of the mainstream energy sector (generation, distribution, transmission), a sector typically perceived as male-dominated. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges faced within the energy sector as social stereotyping initiates at an early age; in this case when girls are discouraged from engaging in science and technology fields because they are told “this is a boy’s thing” or that “boys are good at math while girls are good at reading”. The result is that when women reach technical education or university levels they will largely choose to join social sciences and the service sector instead of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, which are fundamental for a career in the energy sector. For those who dare and graduate from a STEM career, the challenge is then to join and remain in the energy sector, where institutional culture –long working hours and travelling to the field, lack of women role models and a “boys club” mentality make it difficult –if not almost impossible- to combine work and family responsibilities. With renewable energy on the rise, countries would do well in ensuring they have the best human resources to prepare for a just energy transition, meaning encouraging both girls and boys to take on subjects that would allow them to work in the energy sector when they reach adulthood.

In addition, investment on large-scale [renewable] energy infrastructure has a gender and social angle that is seldom discussed. Engaging neighboring communities and understanding how benefit sharing can be done in a gender-responsive manner means recognizing that compensation needs to be based on information that goes beyond land-titling –of which women own a smaller percentage than men- and formal economic activities –as women are typically engaged in sustenance farming and in the informal sector. In addition, ensuring women have a voice when discussing community compensations plans may increase investment in services infrastructure, such as schools and health-centers, which are concerns women typically brought up by women in such contexts.

Ensuring mitigation benefits for all: mainstreaming gender in energy interventions

With energy accounting for two-thirds of greenhouse gases (GHG ) emissions, it is clear that energy has an important role to play in mitigation, particularly with the increase in interest and investment in renewable energy technologies by Governments, international donor organizations, private sector, non-governmental organizaitons and even private citizens. In addition, mitigation initiatives are increasingly expected to deliver impacts beyond mere emission reductions. These co-benefits are expected to contribute to different development goals, which should include the achievement of gender equality, understood as ensuring that women and men have equal rights and access to benefits derived from mitigation initiatives. The table below provides examples of potential co-benefits that can be generated by energy and mitigation initiatives.

gender table LEDS GP
Source: Rojas, A. with Prebble, M and Siles, J (2015) Flipping the switch: Ensuring the energy sector is sustainable and gender-responsive. In L. Aguilar, M. Granat, & C. Owren (Authors), Roots for the future: The landscape and way forward on gender and climate change. Washington, DC: IUCN & GGCA.

As commented in the first blog of these series, Parties to the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are increasingly recognizing the interlinkages between climate mitigation and adaptation initiatives and other development goals. Aligning mitigation projects for the energy sector with national development goals and policies, including those targeting gender equality would ensure that both women and men benefit equally from these interventions –whether targeted at poverty reduction, improved energy services or increase in labor force. Hence, increasing the sustainability of both energy and national development policies.

Gender methodologies have been developed both for the energy and mitigation sectors, with some having already supported the development of gender responsive Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects, as well as Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) and Low Emission Development Strategies (LEDS). My next blog will briefly introduce some of the best known methodologies and case studies.

If you are eager to learn more about these methodologies and how to address gender considerations in the energy sector, I invite you to join the upcoming webinar hosted by the Asia LEDS Partnership, in collaboration with the LEDS Energy Working Group and IUCN’s Gender Equality for Climate Change Opportunities (GECCO), highlighting existing methodologies and showcasing the case of Madhya Pradesh, India, mentioned in this blog. Visit us here to register and acquire more information on the webinar. For additional information on the USAID-supported GECCO work and for accessing key gender, energy and mitigation methodologies please visit the Gender and Renewable Energy (G-REEN) Platform.

Image credit: Matthew Foley/Flickr

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