There are three billion people, or 40% of the world, that still relies on biomass for cooking, lighting, and heating (WHO, 2014). This has led to a significant burden for the planet and for those living on it. Unsustainable biomass collection depletes forests, contributes to soil erosion and loss of watersheds, placing additional pressure on agricultural productivity and food security. Searching for and using solid biomass fuels places women and children’s safety at risk and jeopardizes human health and household and community air quality through toxic smoke emissions. In regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where the lack of access to clean energy solutions and electrification is particularly significant, nearly a third of the urban population and the majority of the rural poor are using biomass for cooking and heating in traditional open fires (GACC, 2014).
Like nearly all global environmental problems, the consequences of reliance on biomass for cooking and lighting impacts women significantly more than men (ICRW 2010). Women and children, usually girls, spend several hours per day gathering fuel, increasing their daily drudgery and increasing their vulnerability to sexual violence. As forests are degraded, the energy burden increases and women are forced to walk even further to collect fuel or use more toxic fuels, such as dung or trash. Risks for displaced and refugee women are even more alarming as 75% – 90% of the rapes reported occur when women leave camps for cooking fuel (WRC, 2011). The health risks of household air pollution are substantial. As the primary managers of household energy, women are disproportionately at risk for harmful emissions exposure every day. Recent global health estimates show that household air pollution leads to over 4 million deaths annually, while millions more suffer from cancer, pneumonia, heart and lung disease, blindness, and burns (Lancet 2013). Approximately 300,000 of the deaths, 88% of which are women, are attributed to burns resulting from traditional cooking fires (Lancet, 2013).
While women and girls bear the brunt of clean energy poverty, their central and pivotal role in sustainable development is becoming increasingly clear (WB, 2014; UN Women 2014). The strategic engagement of women in the clean energy sector is directly in line with the landmark 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development which states, “sustainable development is economic, social and environmental development that ensures human well-being and dignity, ecological integrity, gender equality and social justice, now and in the future.” Building upon the synergies between gender equality, environment, economics and health are critical as we move forward on the path towards sustainable development.
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