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Energy, environment and gender

Deforestation increases the time women spend in meeting energy needs.
Source: Shehzad Noorani/Still Pictures

The synergies between gender, environment and the energy sector were first recognized in relation to biomass energy. Women were recognized as users and collectors of fuel wood, and as victims of environmental deterioration that caused energy scarcity.

Time use surveys have shown that women spend long hours in fuel collection. The burden increases as deforestation worsens, and this affects the time available to women for other activities including income-generating activities, education and participation in decision making. In Sudan, for instance, deforestation in the last decade led to a quadrupling of the time women spent gathering fuelwood (PRB 2001). This stimulated efforts to promote afforestation and design more fuel-efficient stoves. Funding petered out, however, when the improved stoves and forestry projects were not as successful as anticipated (see also Box 3).

Attention to biomass energy and its impact on women's lives has recently revived. A 2002 report by the World Health Organisation ranked indoor air pollution, mainly from woodfuel smoke, as the fourth largest health problem in developing countries (WHO 2002). It is estimated to kill 2 million women and children in developing countries every year (World Bank 2003), and also causes respiratory and eye diseases. There are differences in exposure according to age and economic status, and in some cultures women tend to undervalue their own health, leading to under-reporting of problems (Cecelski 2004).

In many developing countries communal lands remain a crucial source of biomass energy, yet privatization of these lands continues apace - reducing free access to fuelwood, and removing yet another area where cooperative decisions could be made on sustainable management of fuelwood sources (Agarwal 1986).

Air pollution from biomass smoke mostly affects women and children.
Source: Jorgen Schytte/Still Pictures

In developed countries, the links between gender, environment and energy have been explored mainly in the areas of equal opportunity in the energy professions, decision making in energy policy, pollution and health, preferences for energy production systems, access to scientific and technological education and the division of labour in the home (Clancy and Roehr 2003). There is also some indication in industrialized countries that women's preferred research agendas may differ from men's: they tend to be more skewed towards research on renewable energy and social aspects of energy (Clancy and Roehr 2003).

A key lesson for energy policy makers is that the involvement of both sexes in planning and decision making is central to the success or failure of energy interventions.


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