Gender dimension in energy: How energy can be made to empower women

Published on Monday, 01 April 2013

Published by Charity Torregosa on Monday, 01 April 2013

Photo credit: Syed Muhammad Rafiq for ADB 2010.
Photo credit: Syed Muhammad Rafiq for ADB 2010.

Written by Charity Torregosa, Senior Energy Officer 

Women use the time saved from having electricity in doing more household work while men use the extra time in recreation and leisure. This was one of the results of a study  on the interfaces of energy, poverty and gender through in-depth investigation in selected rural provinces of the People’s Republic of China, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. While electricity may ease the burden of housework, it does not decrease the overall workload of women. Time savings are also not necessarily being used by women for income-generating endeavors as the amount of electricity supplied is meager.

The study was conducted in 2003 but its findings still find resonance in the way we do things as we continue to search for effective ways to achieve positive impact of our energy interventions on gender equity and empowerment. 

The study posits that the difference in how women and men use energy and prioritize their energy needs stems from the gender division of labor. Women’s work cuts across the productive and reproductive spheres. Reproductive tasks include the overall physical upkeep of the household, taking care of children and the sick, and cooking including the attendant collection of water and firewood. Reproductive tasks are inherently labor-intensive. Coupled with the poverty dimension, reproductive tasks confine women to using low technology traditional sources of energy such as biomass. The poorer the family the greater the burden of these tasks in terms of the time demanded from, and the health and physical implications for women. And the more time that is expended on these tasks, the lesser are the opportunities available for women to increase their productive capacities.

Women’s labor in the productive sphere is, in most cases unpaid. Cooking food to be sold in local markets would be an example. The study notes that the more differentiated or segregated division of labor is between women and men in the rural context, the more women are associated with tasks that utilize low technology (i.e. human energy), whose value-added is low.

Significant inroads of gender equity could be achieved in energy through interventions that give women more time to effectively improve their capacities and participate in productive, income-generating activities, or as the report infers, where women can make effective tradeoffs in terms of how they use their time between low and high-value added tasks and choose between low and high technology energy sources. This is where knowing how women value, use and source energy; and the presence of “complementary inputs” are crucial. Care would also have to be taken on how specific interventions, say improvement in electricity services that aim to improve productivity in some farming methods have adverse impact on women’s employment. The same study cites a case in Bangladesh where women who operated traditional paddy huskers were displaced by small-scale mechanized milling operated by men.

As daunting and painstaking as it may seem, bringing meaningful and effective positive impact on the lives of women through energy interventions is not impossible if we go the distance to carefully consider the complexities; know where and how to intervene; and, be aware of the implications of each intervention. What would matter as we search for better more effective ways is that we come closer to narrowing the gap between men and women and help break the vicious cycle created by gender inequity.