by Katharina Proestler and Riccardo Zennaro
The struggle for natural resources is a common condition worldwide for communities affected by poverty. This not only has an impact on health, agricultural and economic productivity, but also on education opportunities, social stability and personal well-being. The struggle for access to sufficient water and clean energy is both a human rights issue and a development challenge since it is mostly women and children that are automatically involved in the hardest and life-sustaining practices.
The issues of water, energy, gender and development are more than ever a major challenge to address. In the case of ecosystem services, the impacts of poverty, class and ethnicity are crucial as they define how a community regulates itself and who has access to clean water and modern energy services. In economically disadvantaged communities, the traditionally determined social roles and power relations establish that women and young girls assume the burden of fuel and water collection. The social differences between males and females have to do with strong beliefs that are learned and deeply rooted in each community’s culture. This includes a set of socially defined and prescribed roles, attributes, responsibilities, expectations and behavior patterns that are linked to each sex and age.
However, according to the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, the fact that mainly women and girls collect these precious resources does not mean that they benefit from them – contrarily, their health is even affected negatively. Vital resources like water and wood or fossil fuels are then allocated for the benefit of the whole family and women are less likely to have access to them than men. Their situation could be described as having “responsibility without authority.” Even though it is the responsibility of women to collect the fuel, carry, process, and use it, they often have no say in its allocation. In one of its reports, the World Health Organization remarks how women’s access to decision-making is restricted and therefore limiting their ability to influence how resources such as fuel are used, processed and allocated this is the real paradox of gendered impact on energy, water and food.
According to the World Bank, women in poor communities usually spend every day from two to nine hours collecting fuel and water as well as performing other subsistence activities such as cooking chores. If resources such as water become scarcer because of climate change, girls over boys are withdrawn from school to support family needs. It is a backbreaking, time-consuming, and in many cases, unhealthy but essential survival work. In this regard, UNDP declared that 70 percent of individuals in developing countries living below the poverty threshold are women; most of the two billion people without access to modern energy service live in rural areas demonstrating that a lack of modern fuel has a stronger impact on women and girls.
The repercussions of missing access to modern energy in particular for women and girls are manifold. First of all, the vicious cycle of poverty cannot be interrupted as several hours a day are needed for collecting resources, leaving little time to other livelihood activities such as studying or income generation. Consequently, illiterate girls – our future women – are forced to live in larger and poorer families. These arduous tasks also affect women’s health negatively – many are simply suffering from hauling heavy loads of fuel and water. According to scientists of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, biofuel combustion for cooking in unventilated kitchens causes respiratory infections and premature death of more than two million women and children globally per year.
The worst comes when the natural resources around their home shrink or are no longer available. Entire families or women alone take all their belongings to settle down in shanty towns with no health or sanitation facilities. Those women, who were playing a central role in collecting precious resources such as water and fuel, have to readapt to a completely different life and environment, where another major issue threatens their daily life – violence. In the majority of shanty towns, many cases of violence towards women are registered while they are going to collect water, while they are cleaning or simply walking to the market.
By improving their conditions, women can allocate time for economic activities and, therefore, increase their income. A better income then allows them to invest more in improved energy equipment. Some projects show that it is possible to involve women, not just as passive consumers of technology, but as active participants in integrating or using certain equipment to improve their quality of life. That is the case of the Solar Sister project. This initiative, founded in Sub-Saharan Africa, seeks to eradicate energy poverty by empowering women with economic opportunity based on the potential of solar technology. With a deliberately woman-centered direct sales network, this initiative aims to bring light, hope and opportunity to even the most remote communities.
Therefore, it is necessary to address energy, water access, poverty, equity and gender issues as parts of the same political agenda of development. This requires a change in social behavior and a new consciousness toward environmental degradation. Major change could take place to deal with the resource-gender-poverty nexus including improving access to financial resources and social and political empowerment to participate in the decision-making process within households and communities. In addition, the energy sector needs to provide the poor with affordable and more efficient equipment that reduces adverse health impacts. These strategies could have a positive influence not only on gender equality or on the quality of life especially of women and children, but also on our precious environmental resources. Like, Professor Mohammed Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2006, initiator of the micro-lending project and combatant against world poverty, said: “Changes are products of intensive efforts.”