The power of energy to transform gender relations

By Gender Team on Wed, 04 December 2013

Written by Reihana Mohideen, Special Contributor

Can energy projects transform gender relations and deliver gender equality? What are the possible pathways?  These are questions that gender and energy practitioners regularly consider. 

The answers suggest multiple ways in which energy and associated technologies can make a difference on gender relations and equality, but views on the impacts are mixed.  

According to Jacobsen (2012) electricity, the Internet, other telecenter services, and mobile phones can contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Electricity supplies substitute for the physical labor of women, and complement a wide range of productive activities. Internet services, while minimally utilized by women in low-income countries, significantly reduce transaction costs on information flows. Mobile phones reduce travel time, (to access information, for example), reduce the costs of money transfers, and increase the ability of women entrepreneurs to balance family and work responsibilities. Given their relatively low cost and multiple uses, mobile phones are now common in many poor rural communities in Asia. 

Achieving gender equality goals through energy projects, however, is less clear for Skutsch (2005). She argues that gender goals in energy projects need to be clearly defined and identifies three main elements: improving women’s welfare; increasing women’s economic productivity; and promoting women’s empowerment. Improving women’s welfare can be attained without fundamentally changing women’s role in society but achieving women’s empowerment requires a transformation in gender roles. This means women may need “to break through tradition if they wish to take on new roles and challenges”. Skutsch argues that since transformation of gender roles is rarely the objective or outcome of energy projects, gender equality or women’s empowerment are unlikely to be delivered through energy projects.

Clancy (2011) examines the evidence of changes in gender relations following electrification.  and finds mixed outcomes. In Sri Lanka, men were found to share household work such as ironing after household electrification, but in Bangladesh no changes were noted in the gender division of labor. Hence, Clancy concludes  “Access to modern energy appears to enable women to fulfill their traditional roles (to their satisfaction and wellbeing) rather than bringing significant transformation in gender roles”. 

While these technology pathways to change are inter-dependent and overlap, it is worth asking if some are more conducive to transforming gender relations than others. Kelkar and Nathan (2005) argue that a key factor to promote the rural fuel transition in Asia “is to increase the productivity of women’s income-earning labor in order to bring about economic worth in the use of women’s labor and thus induce a change in the household energy use system”. They point to research conducted in the People’s Republic of China. It shows that an improved stoves program has been most successful in villages where women have significantly participated in income-earning activities and the commercial production of livestock and vegetables. The drive to economize on women’s labor in fuel collection and housework in order to engage in economic activities resulted in a high adoption rate of improved stoves. 

All this tells us that an energy project driven purely by a ‘technological-fix” approach will not necessarily provide pathways to transform gender roles and reduce gender inequalities. In Asia, where clean and renewable energy technologies are emerging as key sources of modern energy for poor communities, opportunities exist to design energy systems that can contribute to improved gender equality and even to transform gender relations. To achieve this goal, we need to draw more women into designing and developing energy services and systems. This is not just an equal opportunity issue. It is crucially about how to go ‘beyond the meter’ to transform societies.   

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