Energy and Gender Inequality

The Intersection of Energy and Gender Inequality 

The Intersection of Energy and Gender Inequality 

Below is a brief story of a Guatemalan woman who lives in a remote community without access to electricity. This woman’s story begins in the early afternoon and only begins to exhibit what life looks like for women in communities without electricity. While the woman is fictional, her story is not. Across the world, millions of women can relate to the following itinerary still to this day. 

She begins to cook for her house of 5, only to realize there is no more fuel for the wood-fired stove. She leaves the house and heads to the forest to cut branches down from the trees of a dwindling forest.  She can spend up to 18 hours a week gathering fuel. She does this every day, just like the rest of the mothers in her town. She knows which limbs will start the fire quickly and which limbs to avoid. She returns with as much wood as she can carry and begins to make a fire.

As the flame awakens, as it does every morning, she keeps an eye on her youngest child as the dancing flames draw the child in. She has seen burns on village children from accidents in the home. She breathes in the smoke from the cook stove. She is used to the gray haze that fills her home every day, so she is unbothered and continues to cook for her family. She is unaware of the harmful effects of consistent exposure to smoke because this is how cooking has always been done in her town. She is unaware of cleaner cooking solutions because her all-consuming duties remain in the house. She has little free time. 

This cycle continues, day in, and day out because this is what is expected of women in communities like this. Electricity, clean water, and sanitation services create immense shortcuts in our daily lives. Without access to these resources, a much larger time commitment is needed to run a household because a task like boiling water uses hours of energy and time. This time commitment disproportionately takes opportunities like education, income, and leisure time away from women.

Issues without Electricity

In Latin America and the Caribbean today, 17 million people do not have access to electricity and 75 million do not have access to clean cooking technologies and fuels. Those without access to electricity and clean cooking are typically poor, rural, and Indigenous communities. Instead of electric cookstoves or gas-powered stoves, these communities depend on biomass-fed fire pits. The smoke and ash emitted from traditional stoves are not only harmful to the environment, but the byproducts have various negative effects on human health.

Yet, the danger is not equally distributed; women face the burden far more than men. In these communities, women are primarily expected to tend to the household responsibilities such as cooking. Consequently, women are breathing in more smoke, leaving them more vulnerable to smoke-induced side effects. On top of cooking, there are a number of responsibilities women have in a home and family setting, leaving them little time for education or other work outside the home. They are unable to earn an income, and therefore, are dependent on the men of the house which can be, in the most extreme cases, unsafe and detrimental to self-confidence. Access to electricity and clean, safer, and quick cooking would be liberating to women. Modern technology would help take some of the burden produced in a household setting, leaving more time for women to learn and explore other interests.

Clean cooking refers to fuel-based and electric stove combinations in which the emissions from these devices meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines for indoor air quality. Clean cooking fuels include liquified petroleum gas (LPG), ethanol, and electric stoves whereas ‘dirty cooking’ is cooking with solid fuels, primarily biomass such as wood and leaves. Dirty cooking emits harmful emissions to human health and to the atmosphere which disproportionately affects remote and poorer communities than does urban and wealthier ones.

Moreover, without electricity and proper sanitation, safe drinking water sources are likely to be missing from communities as well. Limited access to basic water, sanitation, and cooking technologies can prevent communities from developing, leaving them in a more vulnerable state to pandemics, environmental crises, and other disasters. 

Health Impacts of Using Solid Fuels in the Kitchen

Besides the environmental concerns of emissions that biomass-fueled kitchens produce, there is arguably a greater risk at stake–the negative health implications of breathing in smoke. The use of open-fire stoves in homes is concentrated in poorer communities that do not have access to electricity. According to Ravillard et. al, “Households that are poor, rural, and Indigenous, tend to be the ones facing the highest barriers to adopting clean cooking habits,” meaning these demographics are also receiving more health risks as well. 

Relying on open fire-powered stoves causes direct and frequent contact with smoke and ash. Plus, cooking that takes place indoors could bear a greater impact due to poor ventilation. Research on household air pollution has revealed a causal relationship between cardiovascular and respiratory disease and related symptoms and the use of solid fuels in the kitchen. Some of the diseases that can develop or worsen from extended contact with smoke include asthma, pneumonia, and bronchitis. Increased heart rate variability, artery dilation, and low blood pressure are also associated with pollution exposure. Cardiovascular diseases are known to be the leading cause of death in the world, so making cleaner energy forms more accessible throughout the world can potentially bring down the mortality rates. Similarly, providing more communities with electricity will improve sanitation conditions, improving health overall. 

Another aspect to consider is the disproportionate health effects of cooking with solid fuels on women and children. Exposure to pollution particles can cause lower baby weights in pregnancies and can create higher-risk pregnancies due to health issues caused by the exposure. Smoke and pollution exposure starting at a young age, such as a child growing up in a home that uses solid fuels, greatly increases the chance of respiratory disease and can exacerbate diseases in the future. Plus, open fire pits can be dangerous to young children in the home. As women tend to be in the homes more and responsible for cooking duties, their exposure to all of these risks is heightened compared to men in the same communities. 

On a larger scale, communities that do not have access to electricity and clean cooking methods do not have the proper medical care to treat the previously mentioned diseases and illnesses, exposing a negative cycle that revolves around access to energy. This leaves communities even more vulnerable as they do not have vaccines, doctors, and modern medicine practices readily available. In 2021, Latin America and the Caribbean’s  lack of access to energy, and therefore medical treatment, was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the vaccine was finally being distributed, Latin America and the Caribbean, proportionately, had far less control over getting their people vaccinated. In July 2021, 46.3% of the population of the United States and Canada had been completely vaccinated, 34.9% of the countries of the European Union, and only 13.6% in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

These numbers emphasize the large effect sanitation and electricity have on health. A community in good health flourishes and is resilient. They are better equipped to handle disasters and have more energy as a population to grow. Limiting access to electricity limits well-being. Governments need to take sufficient financial measures to ensure communities do not fall behind. 

Adopting Clean Cooking Methods and Associated Barriers 

This issue of access is first and foremost a public health issue. The disease and deaths associated with dirty cooking and improper wastewater disposal systems should motivate governments to aid these communities. While governments throughout Latin America and the Caribbean have provided subsidies since as early as the 1960s for LPG and other clean forms of fuel and energy, there is still a lot more to be done to improve the health and well-being of all communities and to liberate women from taxing and unequal duties. 

While it may have taken the disasters from the 2020 pandemic to spark a plan, government action to provide clean energy and cooking to its communities seems to be the most direct it has ever been. Following the pandemic, the Executive Secretary of The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Alica Bárcena presented a report on the lack of water, sanitation, and electricity with a 10-year investment plan to reduce the number of people without these necessities. To achieve the ECLAC goals, 2.6% of the regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would be invested annually. This plan is promising, but there are still many barriers to overcome to ensure access to clean water, electricity, and cooking is available to everyone in Latin America and the Caribbean.  

A prominent challenge for clean cooking is the cost of stoves. Improved cookstoves can range from $60-$200 while traditional stoves cost around $10-$20. Government subsidies are provided to help cover the cost of these, but the aid is limited because the government has to bear the costs of transportation and material costs. In a cost breakdown, a government-based project providing 100 stoves can cost up to $50,000 when transportation, installation, and project management costs are taken into account. Furthermore, government policies oftentimes fail to reach the rural and remote places, leaving the communities that need the most aid overlooked. To be more reachable, communities may need to change, structurally. However, this takes extra time, resources, and money. Local and national government subsidies need to consider these extra costs and the respective community social changes that may incur when creating funds and plans. 

Another prominent barrier to clean cooking is a cultural one, especially for Indigenous communities with long-standing customs.  Introducing new technologies in kitchens may intrude on traditional ways of cooking which can cause people to stray away from the adoption of clean cooking. In Ayacucho, Peru one of the traditional cookstoves is called a tullpa. Tullpas consist of clay and mud walls surrounding a fire pit where metal bars rest atop the flames. Households typically place one inside their home and one outside. Women tend to the fires and lead the cooking duties with the tullpas. One woman explained that using tullpas is a large part of their culture’s identity since the tullpas stay with families through generations. She says, “Our grandparents cooked with this tullpa. That is why we also continue to use it…There is no other way.” To this Peruvian community, their cooking methods resemble their heritage; they would just not give up this tradition for the sake of “clean cooking.” 

Likewise, cookstoves like tullpas are made in the community and by the community. Women know how to use, repair, and upgrade them. Importing new cookstoves that are manufactured hundreds of miles away can make it difficult to repair and operate. If an improved cookstove breaks, it may take days or weeks for it to be repaired which is not feasible. For improved cookstoves and clean energy devices to be widespread in communities, they will have to have the resources and the expertise to make these fixes. This may look like educating women on building and repairing the cookstoves so they can be self-sufficient and help other community members if needed. 

The most effective policies and solutions will target remote communities but will not change them. Governments and organizations need to work closely with the women who lead the household duties to educate them on the risks of open-fire cooking and to come up with inclusive solutions that do not corrupt traditional practices. These solutions must not replace traditional cooking methods, but instead, be integrated and accessible. 

Safer Solutions

Currently, the most popular solution for the reduction of smoke in homes is the improved biomass cookstove. While improved cookstoves still use biomass as fuel, they are more fuel efficient and produce less emissions when in use compared to open fire stoves. With a combustion chamber, heat is kept inside the device, so the heat is directed solely to the stovetop, requiring less fuel. Likewise, internally containing the combustion reduces the emissions and gasses the user breathes in. But, improved cookstoves cannot simply be placed into communities and be expected to be smoothly accepted. For these improvements to truly succeed, education is a necessity. 

Educating women on the dangers of in-home pollution and about accessing solutions is a large step in this multifaceted solution. In a study analyzing the behavior and attitudes in cooking practices with open-fire stoves in Kenya, Peru, and Nepal, it was found that there were varied levels of knowledge among all countries and communities on the risk of breathing in smoke from traditional stoves. Not knowing the full extent of the danger of air pollution in homes is a massive issue in itself; we need to have widespread, quality education about risks associated with ‘dirty cooking’ and a lack of sanitation. Knowledge is powerful; setting general education standards in communities can be uplifting and liberating. This is especially true for women as they are tied up with many household duties – as shown by the Guatemalan women at the beginning. Education can help break harmful cycles that are driven by gender stereotypes. 

Fortunately, there are ongoing projects today to help combat the lack of education and clean energy in Latin America throughout the world and the inequity that comes along with it. In 2021, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)  launched programs to educate women in rural and indigenous areas in Latin America about solar energy. Specifically, in Peru, the E-Mujeres developmental program. This program is an ‘Energy School’ for women which consists of nearly 300 Peruvian women. Developed by the Peruvian Ministry of Energy and Mines and the UNDP, women in rural communities in Cusco and Cajamarcawere regions were trained to use, install, repair, and commercialize clean energy produced from solar panels that were brought to their communities in a ‘learn-by-doing’ setting. 

 

 

Woman cooking on wood fire. Image Credit: Dushyant Kumar Thakur/iStock.

 

This program is working on expanding nationally across Peru to reach more women to encourage entrepreneurship and instill confidence. The pilot program alone in Cusco and Cajamarca revealed that investing in women results in powerful change. ‘Graduating’ from the E-Mujeres school has allowed these women to start their own clean energy businesses as an all-women group. They can earn an income to help financially provide for themselves and their families. As E-Mujer student Ana Maria Pumaccallahui from Cusco explained, “Women are able to train other people, and to work on an equal footing with men.” This project has shown that providing access to clean energy, equality, and education gives women independence, confidence, and empowerment.

 


Amelia Eves | Environmental Correspondent

Amelia Eves is a sophomore at the University of Michigan studying environmental science with a concentration in sustainable business and a minor in writing. As the granddaughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant and with her knowledge of the natural world, she is passionate about spreading awareness of the many environmental injustices that occur in Latin America. She aims to highlight how the environmental issues of other countries and businesses are often imposed on countries in Latin America, specifically with the increase of lithium mining for the electric vehicle industry. In her role as an Environmental Correspondent for Latina Republic, she plans to shed light on the exploitation of Latin America’s natural resources and share the stories of sustainability measures being taken to solve these issues.