Women powering a clean future

There is a clear link between energy access and women’s economic empowerment and well-being


The lack of access to clean energy has a direct link to violence against women. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The lack of access to clean energy has a direct link to violence against women. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

India ratified the Paris Agreement last month on Gandhi Jayanti—the birth anniversary of M.K. Gandhi, one of the strongest proponents of living in harmony with nature and the environment. India committed to generating at least 40% of its electricity from non-fossil sources by 2030. Currently India accounts for 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Its efforts are key to achieving the goal of halting the effects of climate change by restricting the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

At the 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Marrakech, Morocco, delegates from 200 nations declared that fighting climate change was “an urgent duty”. India’s increasing focus on expanding the use of clean energy is therefore critical. It is also a step towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 7, which emphasizes universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy and increasing the share of renewables in the global energy mix.

In addition to the established avenues towards a cleaner future, it is becoming increasingly evident that women play an important role as agents of change in the transition to cleaner, affordable and sustainable energy. There is a clear link between energy access and women’s economic empowerment and well-being.

In India, for example, women still spend up to 5 hours a day collecting fuel for cooking, as part of their unpaid, unrecognized and unaccounted care work—work that restricts the opportunity for education, paid employment and economic advancement. Further, the use of biomass fuel causes severe and long-term health problems such as respiratory diseases. The World Health Organization reports that in India 500,000 deaths occur every year due to unclean cooking fuels.

The lack of access to clean and affordable energy also has a direct link to violence against women. Women often venture out to collect firewood in remote, isolated and difficult geographic terrains, and are therefore more vulnerable to violence. In addition, reliance on wood disrupts natural resilience buffers and produces vulnerabilities and even accelerates climate change.

Improving energy access would reduce the drudgery of women’s unpaid and care work, enable them to access education and employment options and enhance their livelihoods. Clean cooking fuels such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), biogas and other options such as solar energy could help eliminate the hazards of indoor air pollution in the nearly 140 million Indian households that rely on open fires and biomass for cooking.

Access to energy for women also results in positive gains for the ecosystem. For example, the electrification of rural communities can result in a 9 percentage points increase in female employment, and a staggering 23% increase in the probability of rural women working outside the home. According to a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute, empowering women to participate in India’s economy on an equal basis with men would add $3 trillion to the nation’s economy by 2025.

Enabling women’s access to energy also results in improvements to their social conditions. Women invest 90% of their income back into their families and their welfare—which has a positive knock-on effect, with lasting effects for generations to come. Investments in women’s access to energy are therefore critical. The government’s Ujjwala scheme, which provides LPG connections at reduced rates to women from Below Poverty Line households, is a useful example. The scheme will be bolstered by public investment in clean energy, incentives such as subsidies and taxes, and communities’ access to finance, awareness and education.

Earlier this month, at a side event at COP22, UN Women unveiled its partnership with the ministry of new and renewable energy, government of India, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to address barriers holding up women entrepreneurs, enable women’s participation and leadership in energy policies, and the productive use of sustainable energy. Launched last year, together with the ministry and UNEP, at COP21 in Paris, the new flagship programme on “Women’s Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Energy” is supported by the UK’s department for international development, and will be implemented in four states—Madhya Pradesh, Nagaland, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh—in 2017. It will have an impact on 100,000 disadvantaged women, by providing better access to sustainable energy.

The flagship programme, which yokes together women’s economic empowerment and sustainable energy for all, is seen as a key means of implementation of the gender equality and women’s empowerment compact.

The partnership is an example of a concrete commitment to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment and Goal 7 on energy access.

As we call on governments across the world to “Step It Up” for gender equality, this initiative by the Union government will set a standard for many other countries, and accelerate the momentum towards a more equal world, a Planet 50-50, by the year 2030.

Lakshmi Puri and Rebecca Reichmann Tavares are, respectively, United Nations assistant secretary-general and UN Women deputy director, and representative, UN Women Multi Country Office for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

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