Globally, 1.3 billion people—largely rural populations in developing countries—lack access to electricity. Many of these people have little chance of seeing the electric grid reach their community. This energy poverty, a serious hindrance to economic and social development, is not gender neutral—poor women bear much of the burden of limited access to modern energy services.
Women use the majority of energy in the world, from cooking to pumping water to agricultural processing. While men in rural areas typically use energy for income-generating activities, women’s work often goes unpaid and therefore unrecognized. Of the approximately 1.3 billion people living in poverty, an estimated 70 percent are women, many of who live in female-headed households in rural areas. Renewable energy technologies can ease women’s workload, allowing more time for education, income-earning activities, and improvement of family conditions.
Solar light for health and safety
Many of us don’t think about the quality of our light when we flip on the switch. Yet over one billion people around the world suffer the effects of poor-quality lighting with kerosene lanterns. The smoke from kerosene is extremely unhealthy, causing respiratory infections, lung and throat cancers, and serious eye infections. Overturned kerosene lamps cause countless fire catastrophes every year. The environment suffers as well—190 million tonnes of CO2 is released into the atmosphere from kerosene use annually, the equivalent annual output of 41 million U.S. cars. Many of these rural kerosene users have very little chance of ever being connected to the grid, and solar-powered lighting offers a great alternative. While rural men are more likely to work out of the home, women more often work in the home. Access to a clean, reliable source of light can improve working conditions at home, allowing women to perform tasks under a much higher-quality light without breathing noxious fumes.
Electricity can also open horizons through access to radio and television, potentially positively impacting women’s empowerment and political engagement. And a large impact on women is that access to electricity, and television in particular, lowers the birth rate.
Electric light, through solar-powered streetlights, can also improve women’s safety and ability to participate in nighttime activities such as meetings and classes. Studies show the incidence of rape and violent crimes against women decreases greatly with the addition of streetlights. Rape was rampant in the camps for families displaced after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. But when solar-powered lights were introduced into the camps, the number of rape cases per week fell from 57 to 2 in just one week.
Women and Water
In the industrialized world we have water at our fingertips with the twist of a hand. But imagine having to walk 10 to 15 kilometers each day to collect water. This is the reality for women and children around the world, who carry up to 44 pounds of water on each trip. In many communities this means girls cannot attend school, leaving them in this cycle of poverty. For communities without access to the electric grid a solar powered water pump located in the community can have significant impact. Women in Zanzibar, when given access to water taps right in the community, saved 20–25 hours per week. The women also started to send their daughters to school, as they did not have to spend the day collecting water with their mothers.
Bringing Babies into a Solar World
Imagine having to give birth in the complete dark. Every two minutes, somewhere in the world, a woman dies from complications of pregnancy. Ninety-nine percent of those deaths occur in the developing world. The most common complications are treatable with prompt emergency medical care. Yet this is difficult and often impossible without adequate light and reliable communication systems. 200,000 to 400,000 healthcare facilities in developing countries still lack access to reliable electricity. While many medical procedures can wait for daylight, childbirth happens 24 hours per day. Just having access to minimal lighting can save women’s lives in childbirth. The addition of power for medical appliances and communication equipment has even farther-reaching effects.
Esther Madudu, a midwife in Uganda, had been performing nighttime deliveries holding a cell phone in her teeth. When she received a Solar Suitcase—a portable solar system manufactured for health clinics and hospitals—from WE CARE Solar she was overjoyed. Under the newly mounted solar-powered lights, she resuscitated a preterm baby, sutured a mother who was bleeding, and demonstrated how easily she could now read the labels on medicine vials. “There’s going to be a lot of babies saved, a lot of women saved,” exclaimed Madudu. “I can’t explain the happiness. It’s a different world.”
Solar Empowering Women Entrepreneurs
One of the best ways to lift women out of poverty is to give them income-generating opportunities. Access to electricity does this by giving women the possibility of running an enterprise out of their home, such as a small store, a tailor shop, a cell phone charging center, a beauty salon, or a handicraft workshop. Groups such as Empower Generation in Nepal and Solar Sister in Sub-Saharan Africa have taken this a step further and helped women become solar entrepreneurs.
Through an Avon-style distribution system, Solar Sister entrepreneurs give people access to solar-powered lanterns and cell phone chargers. The entrepreneurs get a “business in a bag”—a start-up kit of inventory and training and marketing support to bring solar appliances directly to their customers’ doorsteps. Over 400 women throughout rural Africa have become Solar Sisters, doubling their household income.
The benefits of achieving universal access to modern, clean energy services—often only possible through renewable energy technologies—are transformational, especially for women. Many of us focus on the large, macro-scale benefits of renewables to national economies, national security, and the global environment. But these benefits exist on a smaller scale, impacting the lives of millions of individual women around the world in energy-poor locales. Bringing renewable energy technologies, along with training, education, and gender awareness programs and policies, to rural areas can greatly change the lives of women—improving their health, their security, and their local economy—and in turn their entire communities. As the Solar Sisters organization notes, “When you invest in a woman, you invest in the future.”
Photo 1 and 2: Courtesy of Safe Mothers, Safe Babies
Photo 3: Courtesy of WE CARE Solar
Photo 4: Courtesy of Solar Sister