4 ways to empower Asian women through energy access

Published on Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Published by Yongping Zhai on Tuesday, 12 January 2016

An old woman cooking inside her house in the Philippines.
An old woman cooking inside her house in the Philippines.

The burden of energy poverty falls heaviest on women in Asia and the Pacific.

In the absence of access to modern energy, nearly 2 billion people in the region depend on wood, charcoal, or dung for cooking and heating their homes. The collection of these fuels is left to women and children and, on average, uses 20 hours out of their week, but some may spend 40% of their waking hours trying to secure fuel. This takes away precious time from any other activities, whether generating extra income, pursuing an education, or caring for children.

The use of these fuels, which burn poorly and produce a great deal of smoke, affects the health of both women and children through indoor air pollution, causing a number of serious respiratory ailments, from infections to lung cancer.

While everyone deserves access to modern energy, addressing energy poverty among women generates some of the greatest benefits and changes. ADB research in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka shows that with access to electricity, women can organize their tasks better; in electrified households, women’s literacy rates are more than 20% higher.

Governments in the region need to strengthen four policy areas to push the agenda of boosting energy access among women:

  1. Recognize that women are in a position to drive demand, and catalyze the adoption and use of new technologies at the household and community levels. Women-specific energy needs such as water pumping or agricultural processing can be addressed through targeted subsidies and improved access to energy supply, technologies, and appliances.
  2. Support women entrepreneurs through technical assistance and financing to enable them to sell, service, and finance energy products. Bangladesh’s Infrastructure Development Company Ltd. program is one of a number of solar-focused programs in South Asia that have trained women as technicians to provide after sales services for home solar systems.
  3. Invest in affordable clean cooking stoves. In Cambodia, an ADB-financed project for improved cookstoves supported 63,000 women-led households, along with training for self-sustaining use of the cookstoves. Successful cookstove projects require strong feedback mechanisms, as women must tell suppliers whether the stove suits their cooking culture.
  4. Expand access to social infrastructure that directly affects women and children, such as health clinics and schools. In the developing world, more than 290 million children go to unelectrified schools and nearly one billion people are served by health centers with no electricity.

Innovations across the region have helped increase the positive impact of sustainable energy on the lives of women and children. More energy-related planned interventions need to be designed with a gender lens to enhance benefits.

A few ADB projects have directly made energy access much more gender-inclusive; one of the most recent focused on bringing energy into the lives of women living below the poverty line on Hatiya Island in Bangladesh through a broad and multi-faceted approach. Alongside the introduction of new energy systems such as solar-powered irrigation and refrigeration, women were specifically trained in using these new systems to increase livelihood opportunities, and educated on using electricity safely and efficiently in their households.

Going forward, we need far more of all these to help women and help our region.