07/16/2013 - 11:26

Women and energy: A package deal

As this Roundtable has established, women shoulder most of the burdens associated with poor energy access in the developing world. It is women who spend hours collecting firewood in the forest, or who walk several kilometers to buy a five-liter can of kerosene that meets a family's cooking and lighting needs for just a few days. By the same token, whenever people gain access to modern energy services, women are the first beneficiaries—something as simple as a rice cooker can do so much to ease a woman's burdens. And when electricity reduces a woman's burdens, every member of a family benefits.

But before energy technology can be installed and poor families can begin to see improvements in their circumstances, they must be prepared for what is to come. Organizations that help establish community energy systems must administer programs that train people to manage and maintain their new energy facilities on a cooperative basis. It is imperative that women play an energetic role in this process, and indeed they usually do—though sometimes they must be pushed a bit.

The process usually begins with a village meeting, during which information can be disseminated to residents (both men and women). In some very conservative areas of Indonesia, such as Aceh in northern Sumatra, it is not customary for women to take any role in village planning issues—but it is still critical that women be invited to the meetings. In such areas, women usually remain outside at the first meeting, listening to the proceedings but not participating. This might hold true at the second meeting as well. But by the third meeting, women are usually sitting side by side with the men and making their voices heard. Once that breakthrough has been made, women usually play a vigorous role throughout the planning process (though local culture and customs prove too large an obstacle in certain locations).

It is especially critical that a champion for women serve on a cooperative's committee. Women on management committees typically devote careful thought to the ways in which electricity can benefit whole villages, and favor taking steps such as establishing community industrial centers where residents can add value to local agricultural products. Women make certain that rules and regulations benefit men and women alike, and do everything possible to make electricity affordable for residents. Sometimes it is very challenging for women to get spots on committees—but as long as they do, one can be sure that they will make valuable contributions to the management and maintenance of a community's new energy facilities.

To ensure that the benefits of electricity accrue to everyone in a poor community, the involvement of women is indispensable. In a sense, energy technology and women's involvement are a package deal: With one and not the other, it is very hard to improve the lives of poor people in rural areas.