To what extent can renewable energy empower women in rural communities?

Scouts participate in a Greenpeace workshop in Durban, October 4, 2011. The scouts are learning about renewable energy and are preparing two trailers equipped with solar panels and a wind turbine which will be used to educate young people ahead of the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). REUTERS/Rogan Ward (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: EDUCATION ENERGY ENVIRONMENT) - GM1E7A502EQ01

Image: REUTERS/Rogan Ward

Tharanga Gunawardena
Communications Manager, Room to Read
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The global energy sector is rapidly transforming and moving more towards renewable energy, a shift that is a huge opportunity to achieve greater gender equality and inclusion.

Yet the energy sector remains one of the least gender diverse industries in the world - only 32% of its workforce is female.

Reinforcing gender equality in any industry is key to generating widespread, holistic results. However, common challenges for women such as access to education, limited mobility and gender norms have held them back from pursuing careers in more male-oriented industries like the energy sector.

In addition, the climate crisis is making women even more vulnerable, especially in disadvantaged communities.

Have you read?

Transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy

Human activity since the Industrial Revolution has changed the balance of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, increasing global temperatures and accelerating climate change. According to NASA, dependency on burning coal and oil have raised Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 412 parts per million in the last 150 years.

As a result, intense climate disasters like irregular, heavy rainfall, floods, landslides, and wildfires have surged, compelling countries to utilize environmentally sustainable energy such as solar, wind, and hydropower.

However, the world is still largely dependent on coal and oil to generate electricity.

Why focus on women?

Female participation in the global workforce currently stands at 66%, compared to 74% of men. However, in vulnerable communities, this falls to approximately 45%.

Furthermore, according to a World Bank study in 2018, over 2.7 billion women are legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men. One-hundred-and-four economies still have laws preventing women from working in specific jobs, and in 18 countries, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working. This limits many women to their traditional roles as caretakers or roles in informal employment, rather than pushing them to discover their potential in new industries.

At the same time, as home makers in vulnerable communities, women are often more subject to energy poverty than men. A study by the International Labour Organization in 2012 revealed that indoor air pollution from combustible fuels for household energy led to 4.3 million deaths, of which 6 out of 10 were female. Access to clean energy will be essential to protecting women in poor communities.

How can women become equal stakeholders in renewable energy?

Currently, 3 billion people around the world have no access to clean cooking equipment. Therefore, developing gender-sensitive energy programmes and SMEs in vulnerable communities will be pivotal to employing and empowering women in the sustainable energy industry. Solar Sisters in Sub-Saharan Africa is one such enterprise. The company combats the lack of access to clean energy by supporting SMEs and trains and supports women to deliver clean energy directly to homes in rural African communities.

Similarly, in Liberia, where only 12% of the population has access to electricity, rural women trained as solar engineers are promoting renewable solar energy that reduces dependency on expensive and polluting fossil fuels, like kerosene. The solar lamps are lighting villages and communities, enabling longer work and study hours and bringing greater security to many, especially at night. Projects like these allow women to be advocates for sustainable energy, empower themselves with knowledge and employment and provide them a platform to be equal stakeholders in the sustainable energy sector.

Almost a third of women’s jobs globally are in agriculture, including forestry and fishing - two sectors which can become direct beneficiaries of green energy. Therefore, grassroots research will be fundamental to understanding how and to what extent green energy will impact women in rural communities. For example, UN Women, together with UNEP, survey rural women in India, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Viet Nam, identifying and removing structural gender-specific barriers that female energy entrepreneurs face, alleviating energy- poverty, and increasing their participation and leadership in developing gender-responsive energy policies. Research projects like this will enable the industry to create better employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for women in vulnerable communities who are direct consumers and beneficiaries of sustainable energy.

Gender disparities in the energy industry are also exacerbated by a lack of financing and investment in female-led renewable energy projects. Tailored accelerators such as ENVenture in Uganda, adapt venture capital models for female-led businesses and entrepreneurs to support green energy start-ups. They finance mobile bookkeeping technology, training and coaching women to launch their business, and supporting the business from concept to execution. Financing and investment will allow women to experiment and explore their ideas.

In order to promote gender equality in renewable energy, women must participate in all levels of the industry, including policy and decision making. Currently, only 24.5% of national members of parliament around the world are women. As women are direct recipients of green energy, their involvement in decision making and policy development will support better and more inclusive solutions.

Involving women in the renewable energy sector can bring systematic change and significantly improve their quality of life. Empowering women at both community and industry levels will strengthen economic and social progress and support governments to deliver gender balanced, sustainable energy for all.

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