There are two widely accepted narratives when it comes to economic growth. First, that gender inequalities have a pernicious impact on economic advancement, employment and innovation. Second, that access to energy is a critical enabler of growth.
And yet, until recently, an exploration into the relationship between those narratives has been limited.
Increasingly, however, governments and donor institutions are realizing they can reap more meaningful benefits on gender inequality by targeting their resources on energy access programs that provide direct benefits for women.
THE LINK BETWEEN GENDER INEQUALITY AND ENERGY ACCESS
Electricity is the base on which modern communities and businesses operate, grow and thrive. And yet more than 840 million people still live without access to power, with hundreds of millions more suffering frequent outages.
On a macro level, universal access to reliable energy is key to improving the health and well-being of people around the world. It strengthens livelihoods and bolsters local economies.
On a micro level, energy access combats ‘time poverty,’ a critical driver of gender inequality.
When women and girls benefit from reliable and affordable electricity, unpaid work becomes less laborious and time-intensive, allowing them to pursue education, income generation, civic involvement, or leisure opportunities.
Authoritative studies have also linked clean energy access with better chances for girls to complete primary education, improved pay for women, and even a reduction in gender-based violence. A World Bank paper reports that household electrification in rural India led to a significant albeit small increase in women’s non-farm self-employment and had a positive effect on girls’ schooling.
Electrical appliances can also ease the burden of household chores, which usually fall on women. Clean energy for cooking saves the time spent gathering dirty fuels such as firewood or cow dung and reduces exposure to indoor air pollution—responsible for 3.8 million premature deaths a year. With better electricity, women’s mobility outdoors also improves due to an increased sense of security through improved street lighting.
ENERGY EMPOWERS FEMALE CHANGE-MAKERS
Households with electricity and cable TV connection have been found to hold more progressive views about the role of women in society, and the importance of girl’s education, with a significant increase in school enrolments.
Over the past decade, we have seen dramatic, positive results in women’s energy access and productivity at work. In one such instance, in the rice belt of Jharkhand, India, the estimated output of women hulling the paddy with an electric huller increased from 20kg to 150 kg in just 4 to 5 hours which shows how time and energy intensive such a manual task is for women. With better results accrued through a motorised huller, those women were able to engage in recreational activities, which also amounted to better health outcomes.
Access to reliable electricity and the consequent time savings enable women to avail of opportunities for skill-training, which can help them to earn an income as an employee or even start their own business.
THE IMPACT OF COVID-19
Even prior to COVID-19 the world was on track to fall short of ensuring universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable energy by 2030 – as committed to in SDG7.
Given the disruption that COVID-19 has caused to policy implementation, and the ability of low-income earners to afford clean energy, achieving that commitment seems even less tangible.
As per the IEA World Energy Investment 2020 report, energy investment globally is seen to be falling by one-fifth or $400 billion compared to the year ago.
At the same time, the many inequities exposed by COVID-19 are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. There is a golden opportunity to build back boldly and put gender equality, social responsibility, and environmental protection at the core of our plans. With a deliberate and strategic focus on these issues, the future we sow could be more bountiful than the past.
DRE: ONE KEY FOR MANY LOCKS
Until recently, there has been an assumed conflict between increasing energy access and fighting climate change. However, innovation and the changing economics of distributed renewable energy (DRE), now make it possible to provide access to all, while limiting future greenhouse gas emissions.
Distributed renewable energy also delivers multi-sectoral benefits. As well as creating local jobs, it drives economic inclusion and opens up new opportunities for women in healthcare, agriculture and small businesses, which are all key sectors in low-income countries and emerging markets.
This means powering development with systems that are fast to deploy, reliable, resilient, and low-carbon—truly a win-win.
By supporting DRE roll-out initiatives, governments and donor institutions can create clear pathways to providing energy for all (SDG7), contributing to gender equality (SDG5), whilst also decarbonizing their economies and meeting the challenge of climate change (SDG13).
As we reimagine so many new realities and rebuild from this pandemic, we cannot miss this moment to give new impetus not only to energy access but to sustainable energy that powers a more equitable future for us all.
(The authors of the article are Suman Sureshbabu who is the Director, Power & Climate Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Jaideep Mukherji who is CEO at Smart Power India. Views expressed are personal.)