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FeatureSDG 7

Decentralized electrification – another piece of the puzzle for gender equality

Lack of access to modern energy holds women back in particular. Wherever they can use modern energy, opportunities open up for them. To tap these opportunities, women must be promoted at all levels. This requires gender-sensitive approaches and a political framework that ensures sustainability.

Where people lack access to modern energy, energy poverty affects women and men differently. Women and girls disproportionately bear the burden of energy poverty due to gender norms and traditions that hinder equal access to modern energy services. The way large parts of the world still cook today bears testament.

Anyone who has sat in the acrid smoke of an open cooking fire in Africa, Asia or Latin America understands how the pollutants a fire contains can trigger eye and respiratory diseases and weaken the immune system. The WHO estimates that 3.2 million people die every year as a result, mostly women and children. Searching for firewood and fuel also costs women an average of 100 hours a year, time not available for productive work or caring for children.

More time for productive work

The lack of modern energy also prevents women from processing their agricultural yields more productively or starting their own businesses. In positive terms, this means that modern energy offers numerous opportunities, especially for girls and women. Illuminated roads and paths make their way home safer. Clean cooking cookers, water pumps and household appliances save women a lot of time, which reduces their overload and leaves time for other things. Light in the house enables better schooling and productive work even in the evening. With electricity, health centres can stay open into the evenings and provide better care for patients, babies or expectant mothers. Teachers can offer better and digital lessons, too. Women can also start businesses, earn their own income and become more independent.

These examples show how gender equality and access to modern energy are inextricably linked. However, access does not automatically promote gender equality. Rather, gender and women’s disadvantages need to be mainstreamed. “Gender-blind approaches institutionalize existing inequalities and perpetuate them,” warns the organization Energia

Women are disadvantaged at all levels due to socio-cultural norms and traditional male-dominated structures. In access to energy, in its use for productive purposes and in access to credit and finance, education and training. They are also disadvantaged in land ownership and property rights, mobility and income. “Women are restricted in their choice of markets and jobs, have limited access to capital and are twice as likely as men to work informally,” Energia criticizes.

Women are practically invisible in technical professions

In technical professions especially, women are virtually invisible in many sub-Saharan African countries. “In Benin, their share is 1.4 percent,” a gender study by the Ministry of Energy in Benin revealed. This is just as true for companies and providers of renewable energy solutions, state institutions and the entire financial sector, which provides loans and investment funds.

Therefore, women must not only become equal users of renewable energy and related solutions, but also be important actors in their adoption. As the main consumers in the household, they are important contacts and potential decision-makers when it comes to purchasing household and agricultural equipment.

According to a study by the Alliance for Rural Electrification (ARE), women-owned businesses tend to be as profitable as those owned by men, but are more reliable in repaying their debts. Women also invest differently than men, up to 90 per cent for the benefit of their families. Studies show that equally gendered or women-led local enterprises are more reliable and even outperform male-led ones. So, gender equality also makes a lot of economic sense. This is because women can play an important role in spreading renewable energy solutions because they are often networked with other women, organized in women’s finance groups or women’s groups.

Women – agents of change

 “These are just a few reasons why gender equality plays a central role in achieving the SDGs, especially SDG 7. That is why, on behalf of the BMZ, we promote equal access for men and women to our measures in our partner countries, paying particular attention to the needs of women,” says Vera Schwarzenberg from Green People’s Energy (GBE). To promote women’s economic and social rights, GBE is engaged in the key areas of education and training, productive use and financing in its nine partner countries.

Education and training

Many women still lack access to education and training of all kinds and the opportunity to develop their competencies and skills. GBE supports women in their development in many ways. GBE has set itself ambitious goals to increase the proportion of women in further training. Both in training professionals and promoting enterprises, GBE wants to reach at least 30 percent women, thus promoting a gender-sensitive change process in society. This may not seem very ambitious at first, but it is often a challenge, especially in rural project regions.

To this end, GBE has increasingly trained female trainers, designed selection criteria for participation in training courses, but also for curricula in a gender-sensitive way. In Ethiopia, for example, GBE initially offered special training for female technicians to compensate for their knowledge gaps compared to male colleagues and thus enable them to participate in advanced energy training together with male colleagues. However, it is not just training-related issues that play a role in success. One lesson learned in recent years is that where training providers provide parallel childcare or sleeping facilities specifically for women, as is the case for GBE Uganda, they reduce logistical barriers and ensure equal access with a safer and more relaxed environment for participants. This allows them to then focus fully on the training.

Productive use and finances

Research has shown that women are disadvantaged in their economic development due to social norms. “Therefore, women who want to realize their economic potential need to be fully supported,” says Sheila Oparaocha, Director of the Energia Network.  

Against this backdrop, GBE has developed advisory formats that provide equal support to women and men in developing their own business ideas in different partner countries. Promoting women-dominated value chains can help women earn higher incomes or start their own businesses. In Senegal, for example, GBE supported members of women’s cooperatives to purchase small solar-powered mills, peeling machines, solar water pumps, solar refrigerators, sewing machines, and solar dryers. About 1,000 women have benefited. In the West African country, GBE has also developed a gender-sensitive financing approach in which it supports women not directly but indirectly through the suppliers of solar products. These must prove a certain percentage of female clients in order to access funds from a results-based financing contract.

This approach has been successful and has triggered a rethink among companies. “In the end, the companies – they usually credit the purchase of their products – were happy to meet the quota because the women paid back monthly loan instalments very reliably,” says Vera Schwarzenberg.

Lessons learned

This direct promotion of women in key areas, such as productive use of energy or education and training, must go hand in hand with systemic approaches that improve framework conditions for women in (energy) companies, institutions, authorities and governments. Despite much progress and the knowledge that gender-sensitive approaches in the energy sector benefit everyone, these approaches do not automatically prevail. “In principle, there seems to be an awareness of gender equality among many actors in the energy sector as well, but there are still some structural hurdles and cultural norms standing in the way of its implementation,” adds Vera Schwarzenberg.

Awareness-raising campaigns at all levels and political advocacy are therefore necessary to improve the political framework conditions for the advancement of women. For this, valid data is also needed, especially for politics, which proves and supports the advantages of a gender-sensitive energy supply. GBE is currently collecting further lessons learned in various partner countries and will publish them in summer 2023.

There is a need for lighthouse projects that radiate out to authorities, companies and the population. Like the training programme for eight female engineers in Benin, which GBE implemented together with the Ministry of Energy. The women engineers passed through departments of the Ministry of Energy and energy suppliers. As part of the project, they then visited girls’ classes and had some messages in their luggage as important role models. “We are just as good as men,” was one, another yet “We earn good money in the energy sector.” Addressing the girls, engineer Raïnatou Coulibaly says, “Sisters, cherish your dreams, have confidence in your abilities and work harder.”