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How clean energy can empower women in rural communities

Developing a gender-inclusive clean energy sector can empower women in rural communities as both consumers and producers of clean energy and help facilitate the transition towards a greener and more sustainable future. Supporting women’s advancement in the sector requires targeted policy focusing on increasing access to credit, training and skill development, education, and addressing broader systemic gender issues such as property and equal access laws, land rights, and political participation.  

Lack of access to affordable, clean, and modern energy has a disproportionately negative impact on the lives and livelihoods of low-income women. Globally,  800 million people lack access to electricity, more than 2.6 billion people lack access to clean cooking facilities, and women spend approximately 40% of family income on inefficient and dangerous kerosene.  

Developing a gender-inclusive clean energy sector can serve as a catalyst for women’s empowerment by generating socioeconomic opportunities while also having a positive climate impact. Women in rural communities can not only be empowered as end-consumers of clean energy but also as active participants across the entire renewable energy value chain. Additionally, adopting gender-sensitive energy access policies that are informed by women and address the realities of women’s needs could be effective in reaching underserved communities and supporting last-mile rural electrification. Ultimately, a more gender-inclusive clean energy sector can support broader socioeconomic development and help facilitate the transition towards a greener and more sustainable future. 

Understanding the energy-gender nexus 

Gender equality and energy access are intrinsically linked and addressing them together could generate mutually reinforcing benefits including poverty reduction, food security, health, education, clean water and sanitation, job creation, and climate protection. In order to better understand the energy-gender nexus and maximise synergies, it is important to recognise that men and women typically have distinct energy requirements and both benefit differently from increased energy access.  

Energy poverty in rural communities has a disproportionately negative impact on women and girls due to embedded gender norms and traditions which impede equal access to energy services. For example, the grid in many rural communities only extends to areas that are typically utilised by men (such as courtyards and agricultural areas) so household chores that are predominantly carried out by women lose out on the benefits of grid extension (Baruah, 2016). Thus, as the primary users of household energy, lack of access to clean energy increases the burden of women’s household chores and exposes them to the following risks:  

  • Health risks: in the absence of clean cooking technologies, women and children are often exposed to toxic smoke from traditional cookstoves (biomass, kerosene, or coal) which is detrimental to their health. The ILO (2012) found that household air pollution from inefficient cooking technologies was responsible for 4.3 million deaths, of which 60% were female 
  • Opportunity costs: in rural communities, women are responsible for completing time-consuming household tasks including the collection of biomass and fuelwood for cooking, heating, and lighting needs. This detracts them from engaging in other income-generating activities, childcare, and leisure and impedes children’s educational attainment. This is compounded by the lack of reliable light which minimises hours for productive work and study. This is referred to as “time-poverty” which is a significant driver of gender inequality.  
  • Safety and security risks: the burden of walking long distances to collect biomass and firewood from remote and isolated areas make women and girls more susceptible to the risk of harassment, abduction, rape and other dangers. These distances are further increasing due to depleting forest cover and climate change. 

The global energy sector is rapidly changing and the shift towards clean energy sources presents a catalytic opportunity to achieve greater gender equality and power a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable future. Policymakers should use this opportunity to design energy access programmes that seek synergies between clean energy and gender equality to maximise impact. 

Empowering women as clean energy consumers  

Women benefit first-hand as consumers of clean energy and can play a central role in the transition to renewable energy by shaping energy consumption patterns. Access to clean energy technologies can eliminate women’s exposure to household air pollution, allows for more efficient end-use products and appliances (such as lighting, cookstoves, fans, mobile phone charging etc.), and street lighting increases security and enables greater mobility. These time-saving electrical appliances in particular have been transformative for women in rural settings by reducing their drudgery and enabling them to spend time on other productive and economically empowering activities. This includes engaging in clean energy businesses which directly use energy (for example water pumps for irrigation and mills for processing grain) or selling these appliances and services (for example solar panels, clean cookstoves, solar lamps, etc.).  

Studies have found that clean energy access is associated with improvements in wages for women, better prospects for girls to complete primary education, and even a reduction in gender-based violence. A report by the World Bank (2013) found that household electrification in rural India was associated with an increase in women’s non-farm self-employment and had a positive impact on schooling for girls. Research has also found that self-employed rural women with access to energy earn more than twice as much as their counterparts without access to energy. 

Increased energy access also has a positive impact on the functioning of community services such as schools and health facilities which could improve conditions for women at childbirth, reduce maternal deaths, and enable improved storage of medicines. Ultimately, access to clean energy would improve baseline living conditions for women (through improved health, education, security, and local livelihoods) which can facilitate greater access to economic opportunities and empower women as end-consumers. 

Empowering women as clean energy producers and entrepreneurs  

The benefits that accrue to women from increased energy access alone are not enough. There is also a strong case for empowering women through their integration and employment along the entire energy-system value chain as entrepreneurs, employees, innovators, designers, and even decision-makers in its upper echelons. This would enable women to tap into their entrepreneurial potential and serve on the frontline as agents of change. For example, over 86% of Solar Sister’s staff in sub-Saharan Africa comprises women energy managers, trainers, business coaches, and technicians. Similarly, rural women in Liberia have been trained as solar engineers and are on the frontlines supporting the transition towards renewable solar energy. Engaging rural women in the energy supply chain will contribute to their empowerment by allowing them to be advocates for sustainable energy, boosting their self-confidence, and increasing their financial independence and agency.  

Despite the energy sector being a predominantly male dominated sector, studies in India have shown that women perform just as well as men. The Bijuli Didis (Electricity Sisters) from Odisha comprise a network of 120 women who are playing a key role in delivering reliable clean energy access to underserved villages. These women are collectively generating increased revenues through strengthened customer service which has prompted greater connectivity to the solar grid. Similarly, the Barefoot College programme in Rajasthan trains rural women to become solar engineers and provide electricity to remote villages. Thus, female energy entrepreneurs can play an important role in last-mile rural electrification by generating inclusive solutions that address women’s needs and being part of social networks that enable greater outreach and connection with rural and hard-to-reach customers.  

Nevertheless, in rural communities, women’s involvement in non-traditional roles and integration into energy-system supply chains remains a challenge. There is a need to develop business models that adopt a women-centric approach and supportive policy measures that address legal and social barriers (such as limiting property rights, land tenure, and access to credit) that prevent women from transitioning into the clean energy sector.  

Policy measures to support women’s transition into the clean energy sector  

Maximising the benefits accruing to women from greater energy access and optimising women’s performance and advancement in the clean energy sector requires gender mainstreaming, i.e. integrating a gender perspective into the preparation, design, and implementation of polices with the aim of promoting greater equality between men and women. In the context of the clean energy sector, this would involve addressing the legal and social barriers faced by women, including embedded gender norms, social hierarchies, and recognising the differences in energy use among men and women. 

Lack of access to appropriate financing is often the biggest impediment to the widespread diffusion of clean energy appliances and services in rural communities. Targeted energy access programmes should focus on increasing access to finance and credit, training and skill development, education, and supportive social policies for female entrepreneurs aimed at increasing economic engagement and facilitating their transition into the clean energy sector (Baruah, 2016). Holistic energy access programmes should also address broader systemic gender issues such as land rights, property and equal access laws, and political participation.  

Editor’s note: This article a part of our gender equality series. 

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