The UN’s Rio+20 Earth Summit this month will be a staging ground to chart the course for inclusive economies, social equality and environmental protection. For that reason, it must place sustainable development at the forefront of the global agenda.
It is already clear that achieving sustainable development is not possible without energy from sustainable sources. Indeed, access to energy spurs development on many levels — not least in terms of women and their health, safety and autonomy.
Recognizing this, the UN has declared this year the Year of Sustainable Energy for All, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has launched a global initiative to achieve three ambitious goals by 2030: universal access to modern energy services, a doubling of the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency and a doubling of the share of energy from renewable resources in the global energy mix.
These are global issues, but, everywhere around the world, energy is a women’s issue. It can mean the difference between safety and fear, freedom and servitude, and even life and death.
In many places, especially in rural areas, women spend long hours each day finding fuel wherever they can in the absence of energy from sustainable sources. Globally, 1.3 billion people still lack access to electricity and 2.7 billion people, mostly women, rely on wood, charcoal and dung for cooking. Whether foraging for firewood, which may expose them and their daughters to the risk of rape, or spending their scarce resources on kerosene for smoky, inefficient lighting, women make difficult decisions every day about household energy resources and usage.
It is also women who suffer the disproportionate health impacts of energy from unsustainable sources. Exposure to smoke from hazardous methods of cooking, heating and lighting kills nearly 2 million people each year, 85 percent of whom are women and children who die from associated cancer, respiratory infections and lung disease. Millions more suffer from exposure-related diseases.
At the community level, a lack of energy at medical clinics impedes the ability of medical personnel to provide adequate treatment and care. It is estimated that 200,000 to 400,000 healthcare facilities in developing countries lack access to reliable electricity. This means that vaccines and blood cannot be stored safely, diagnostic equipment is often useless and operating rooms cannot function at night.
For pregnant women, this lack of reliable electricity poses a significant risk to their own lives and those of their babies. Worldwide, 800 women die each day from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, and the vast majority of these deaths could be averted by providing quality health services, for which electricity is usually required.
Today, the long hours of unpaid work that women perform each day searching for firewood and other energy sources rob them of time to engage in more productive activities. That, in turn, deprives poor families of much-needed income.
It does not have to be this way. In Kenya, improved wood-burning stoves have reduced fuel requirements by about 40 percent, which has not only lowered women’s burden of unpaid work and reduced deforestation, but has also freed up time that women can devote to education, training and paid employment, which will reduce poverty.