Solar Sister Energy Access & Health Matters Series:
What has women and girl’s health to do with clean energy?
Did you know that energy poverty has a female face? Women and girls in villages, small towns and shanty dwellings dispersed across the length and breadth of Asia, Africa and Latin America live with the worst consequences of energy poverty. Let’s put spotlight on two key health dimensions that often get sidelined in discussions on why energy access is so important for women’s health. One, the burden of lifting heavy fuelwood for cooking over long distances and two, women’s sanitation and safety concerns related to the use of outdoor bathrooms without basic lighting at night.
All over the world, rural women heavily depend on fuel wood for cooking. According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, over half of world’s population cooks food, boils water, and warm their homes using wood, dung and other local biomass. The World Health Organization estimates that exposure to smoke from cooking constitutes the fifth worst risk factor for disease in developing countries. Open fires and poorly designed makeshift cook stoves emit smoke and particulate matter which are responsible for nearly 2 million deaths a year worldwide.
In most cases, women and children are responsible for collecting the wood, a very time-consuming and tiring task. International Energy Agency estimates that the average fuel wood load in sub-Saharan Africa is around 20 kg (44 lbs) but loads of 38 kg (84 lbs) have also been recorded. Women can suffer serious long-term physical damage carrying such heavy loads on their back with impacts like low birth weights in babies. Add to this the constant risk of falls, bites or assault, that risk of injury rises steeply the further from home women and children have to walk to collect the wood due to deforestation engulfing many areas. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is fighting these issues to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions.
The other women’s health issue related to energy poverty was brought to my attention by Sarah Kasule, Program Coordinator with the Mother’s Union of Uganda, which is one of Solar Sister’s key grassroots partners in training rural women as solar entrepreneurs. Sarah told me an important benefit of solar light for the women of Africa that I had not heard about from anyone else I’d met. She said that in Uganda, open pit toilets are often located outside the houses/larger settlements and in absence of light; women have to walk in the dark to use the toilet. This is not a very appealing topic for most to talk about openly but is extremely important from women’s health perspective as women pick up all kinds of unsavory infections in absence of clean toilets and worse, without being able to see where they are going. Besides, walking alone in the thick of night to use the toilet increases the risk of gender-based violence, which drives women further into poverty. The situation is worse for women living in refugee camps. Access to light can be one of the important tools to improve nighttime security and health for women. Sarah is happy that now with the unique partnership between Solar Sister and Mother’s Union of Uganda, this important issue can get much needed light.