By Emily Haves, Ashden Research Programme Coordinator
As a politics student, and then a development studies student, I was always attracted to the gender angle in any question. So when I joined the Ashden team last autumn I was excited to find that lots of our winners are really enthusiastic about the benefits their sustainable energy technology is bringing to women. But the academic in me couldn’t help but wonder if this impact has been systematically studied. So I set off to find out.
I was surprised by what I found. Of the few academic papers that discuss the impact of gaining access to electricity, even fewer differentiate the results by gender. Data for the impact of cleaner cooking technologies was easier to find, as in most areas that still rely primarily on biomass for cooking, women still do the bulk of it. And it was nice to see some of the rigorous data on cookstoves actually comes from Ashden Award-winning organisations such as GERES and Trees Water People.
Looking at the gendered impacts of access to electricity
Frustrated with the lack of evidence in academic journals regarding the gendered impacts of access to electricity, I decided to cast my net wider and also looked at studies done by multi-lateral institutions and research establishments.
The evidence there that does exist is encouraging. Electrification was associated with increases in women’s income generation in all the studies. Some attributed this to having light in the evenings, enabling women to do home-based handicrafts. Others didn’t examine the cause, so it is possible that when a whole community gets electricity this leads to more external job opportunities for women.
In the honourable tradition of taking nothing from granted, I also questioned whether this increase in paid work is a good thing for women. To do this I used a framework conceived by the sociologist Maxine Molyneux which differentiates between practical needs, which are the result of existing gender roles, and strategic needs, which challenge existing gender roles and transform the balance of power between men and women.
Meeting practical needs is essential, but inequality will not be addressed without challenging existing gender roles. Take women’s paid work. There is a widely held belief, backed up by good evidence, that when women start to earn an income it increases their bargaining power within the home. However not all work is equally empowering. Home-based handicrafts are traditional women’s tasks, therefore doing them doesn’t actually challenge gender stereotypes. On the other hand, taking on tasks that are widely seen as male can challenge male dominance and therefore help a woman meet her strategic needs; for example, the fact that British women did men’s jobs when they were away during the First World War is widely seen to have been a key element in the case for giving them the vote after the war.
One of the things that’s really exciting about local sustainable energy is that it provides an opportunity to engage women in the supply of energy – an area that has typically been the preserve of men. One organisation that is doing this very effectively is Grameen Shakti in Bangladesh, which won an Ashden Award in 2008. I couldn’t find any studies of the effects of actively engaging women in energy supply, but the anecdotal evidence is quite exciting.
One thing that struck me was the importance of media (especially TV and radio) for empowering women. There was a lot of evidence that after lighting, families are quick to use their electricity for TV, and that this changes the way people see women’s roles. A study on the impact of cable television in rural India also found lower son preference, more self-determination, and less acceptance of domestic violence, while a study of households in Bangladesh found that women from electrified households were less likely to display son preference, arrange marriages for their children or suffer wage discrimination, and had higher levels of empowerment.
Cleaner cooking saves time and improves health
Cleaner cooking technologies are somewhat simpler. Good efficient stoves reduce indoor air pollution, which reduces incidences of respiratory disease, headache, and eye discomfort. Other benefits come in the form of less time spent collecting firewood, and one study even quantified the benefits of better health in lost work days and money spent on health care.
It’s hard to argue with better health for women, although the real challenge for cookstoves comes in designing a stove that people will happily use – there are many stories of stoves that work wonderfully in a lab ending up lying unused in corners.
A plea to social impact researchers
Clearly, what’s true for an electrified village in Bangladesh almost certainly won’t have the same effect on a newly electrified favela in Rio. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and with evidence so thin on the ground it’s hard to be very context-specific. So I’ll end this with a plea to all those undertaking social impact research on energy access: please disaggregate your data by gender! To make modern energy work for women we have to understand how it impacts their lives.
You can read the report summarising the results of my research here