Opinion: Access to sustainable energy is key to progress for women and girls

A woman operates an LPG stove. Photo by: GLPGP

Today, we mark International Women’s Day, with a special United Nations focus this year on rural and urban activists transforming women's lives. The needs and perspectives of women in the developing world, and of rural women in particular, have been marginalized for too long. This includes in the energy sector, despite women being both energy providers and consumers. Women's roles as key change makers have yet to be fully recognized in harnessing the energy services they, their households, their communities, and their countries need and want. That needs to change.

The role that energy plays in powering poverty reduction, especially for women, has been recognized in U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 7. Today, over 1 billion people still lack access to electricity. Even more, 2.8 billion people still cook using solid fuels harmful to their health, their safety, and the environment.

Smoke from the use of solid fuels including wood and charcoal for cooking causes 2.6 million deaths globally each year from household air pollution. Women and children suffer from 60 percent of all such deaths. Air pollution has been singled out as the world’s leading environmental cause of death and disability, causing more premature deaths than HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis combined. Some researchers have estimated that level of smoke inhalation from cooking with a traditional wood stove are equivalent to smoking 400 cigarettes per hour. Beyond impact at the household level, such smoke pollution also contributes to climate change, due to emissions of carbon dioxide and black carbon. It also threatens forests, since much fuelwood is not sustainably harvested.

Reliance on solid fuels can also be a threat to women’s safety. In developing or conflict-affected countries, as many as 7 in 10 women experience sexual violence during their lifetimes. As rural women and girls are also largely responsible for firewood collection, they face this persistent and pervasive threat, especially in refugee camp settings. In an evaluation of Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp — one of the world’s largest — it was found that when households were supplied with sufficient energy, there was almost a 50 percent decrease in rape for women undertaking domestic work.

Using a different fuel to power homes and communities could thus improve millions of lives. One such clean fuel is liquefied petroleum gas, also known as propane and across parts of the developing world as cooking gas or bottled gas. It is a modern cooking fuel women want.

LPG is already used by around 3 billion people for some or all of their cooking needs in developed and developing countries alike. It is recognized by the International Energy Agency as a viable solution for about half of the 2.8 billion people still needing access to clean cooking fuels. With a low carbon footprint, LPG is a valuable transition fuel until an affordable, fully renewable cooking fuel becomes available at scale, or until bio-LPG production becomes widespread. It is a far better solution for the health of women and children. LPG is still a by-product of fossil fuel production, but it is better for the environment than unsustainably harvested wood and charcoal. Using it for clean cooking simply makes sense.

Some developing countries have already undertaken massive national programs to expand access to LPG for cooking purposes. India is in the middle of a transition to provide 150 million new connections to LPG for low-income households, within their Ujjwala program. This level of national vision is not unprecedented. At the Global LPG Partnership, we are working with the government of Cameroon, in Central Africa, to plan a pathway for nearly 60 percent of the population to access LPG by 2030. Across sub-Saharan Africa, many other countries also already adopted targets for access to LPG for clean cooking by 2030, with several countries already aiming for 100 percent LPG adoption.

At GLPGP, we not only work with governments, we also work with communities to expand availability and adoption of LPG as a key solution for millions of women, helping them to better their own — and their children's — lives. With partners, we have established innovative microfinance programs in Cameroon to help women access small loans they need to cook with LPG, since low-income women may struggle to afford the stoves and other equipment needed to make the switch.

Making real and significant progress for women and girls in Cameroon and around the world and fulfilling the promise of our collective international goals for a fairer, more equitable world, requires listening to women and enabling their voices to be heard. This includes in the indispensable realm of access to sustainable energy.

It is not only about meeting women's needs; it is also about partnering with women to lead change and concrete commitments for making these solutions a reality. That is a recipe for success.

About the author

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    Richenda Van Leeuwen

    Richenda Van Leeuwen is an energy access expert who led Energy Access at the UN Foundation and with the UN Sustainable Energy for All Initiative from 2010-2016. She launched and led the now 2,500 member "Energy Access Practitioner Network," focused on off-grid and mini-grid renewable energy solutions. She is currently chair, international institutions at the Global LPG Partnership, addressing cooking energy access, and a member of the World Bank's Energy Program Technical Advisory Group.