An opinion piece by Sheila Oparaocha and Elizabeth Cecelski (ENERGIA), Rabia Ferroukhi (IRENA), Dymphna van der Lans (Clean Cooking Alliance), Irene Giner-Reichl (GWNET), Monica Maduekwe (ECREEE), Ajaita Shah (Frontier Markets)
As women leaders working to achieve sustainable energy for all, we are calling for gender equality in post-COVID-19 measures to build back better!
Women are on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. They need modern and affordable energy to keep up the fight and to support the economic recovery, to make their households, communities and businesses more resilient. The short-term effects of the pandemic for energy access and for women are devastating and need to be mitigated. But there are also opportunities to address long-standing inequalities in energy access and to promote women’s empowerment in the energy sector, if we do things differently moving forward.
Understanding the connections between the present pandemic, the looming climate crisis, and long-standing gender disparities can help us devise solutions with multiple benefits. As economies re-open and governments include sustainable energy options in recovery packages, we see four major opportunities to address long-standing inequalities and promote women’s empowerment in the energy sector:
- Women and men should get equal opportunities to participate in and support the clean energy economy, as entrepreneurs and employees, and equal funding and investment for their businesses;
- The energy sector must mitigate gender-based vulnerabilities that have worsened with the pandemic, in health care, gender-based violence, and the digital economy;
- Women need better energy access and suitable appliances to support their roles in the care economy. Clean cooking is of special importance here.
- Women need to have a place at the table – or create their own tables – when strategies about energy transitions and post recovery strategies are planned and decided on.
First, women need equal opportunities to advance in the clean energy economy, whether as employees in energy companies or as entrepreneurs reaching the “last mile” of energy distribution. All businesses have suffered, but many women-led businesses are in the informal sector and more vulnerable and difficult to reach. If these businesses do not survive, universal energy access goals are threatened, because women-led businesses have been the most effective at reaching households in the last mile of energy distribution. These female entrepreneurs need financial support and debt restructuring to salvage their operations, as well as access to mobile and digital technology, in order to advance.
As energy companies adjust to the “new normal” with remote working arrangements, attention to employee safety and welfare, and family-friendly work policies, they have a prime opportunity to use these practices to promote gender equality and diversity in the workplace. Women currently make up only about a third of the sustainable energy labour force, and less in STEM jobs. The transformation of the energy system brings vast opportunities to develop local capabilities and value chains and clearly requires all available talent. Women’s participation should be more widely fostered through STEM education and workforce training, mentoring and coaching, work-life balance policies, and so on. There is ample evidence that including women more equally in the workforce is good for the economic bottom line, for social development and for the environment.
Second, the energy sector needs to contribute to mitigating gender-based vulnerabilities that have worsened with the pandemic. Under-resourced health clinics need electricity to deliver vital services and reduce maternal mortality, challenges magnified by COVID-19. Pregnant and reproductive age women cannot simply wait for the pandemic to end. Gender-based violence has increased with lockdowns, and women need access to solar lighting, phone charging and communications, to mitigate this. The ‘digital divide’ in communications between women and men is even more important to bridge now; lack of electricity can exclude women from the digital economy, just when COVID-19 requires participating in a digitised labour market and is essential for education and messaging.
Third, women need better energy access and better appliances, to support their roles in the care economy and the new importance of the home as the center of work, care and leisure. Cleaning and sanitation are not optional. Already before COVID-19 women were working three times as much as men domestically and in the unpaid care economy, and they are a disproportionate share of COVID-19 frontline workers who need extra labour-saving options at home as well as better sanitation. Teleworking and home schooling have increased burdens further. Hot food and clean water, a smoke-free environment, food storage, washing clothes, homes and hands, refrigeration, and lighting; all rely on adequate energy supplies and suitable appliances. Flexible finance, targeted subsidies, and freedom from cut-offs are essential policies to ensure this energy access.
Clean cooking fuels and technologies are of special importance, to save women’s labor but also because air pollution makes COVID-19 more severe, according to a recent study. Economic burdens could also cause a return to firewood for cooking. Household air pollution already causes more than 4 million premature deaths each year. Globally the cooking energy target of SDG 7 has fallen behind, progress is not even keeping up with population growth. It is therefore all the more imperative that governments make clean and affordable cooking part of their pandemic emergency response plans.
Finally, women must have a place at the table in energy transition and post-COVID-19 economy recovery decision-making and planning. Gender-blind recovery and stimulus plans will be unable to achieve universal access to energy and reach SDG7 targets. Women’s experiences and voices are needed in planning and implementation. Gender assessments need to be integrated in energy planning; sex-disaggregated data are essential for meaningful monitoring. Funding and investing in women is critical. Economic recovery plans must include equitable access to and control over sustainable energy services for women and men as an essential right to development.
The world is rapidly re-imagining so many new realities in the context of the pandemic and recovery, including re-visualizing energy access futures. The moment should not be missed to give new impetus not only to the sustainable energy transition, but to women’s access and participation in the energy sector. We aim to make sure that women’s voices are heard. Now is the time for the energy sector to reset what is normal for gender equality and open opportunities for women’s empowerment in the transition to sustainable energy.
- ENERGIA (2020), “Gender and energy at center stage in COVID-19 battle: Powering a more gender-equal recovery”, https://www.energia.org/assets/2020/05/covid-position-paper_FINAL.pdf.
- International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) (2020), “Call to Action in Response to COVID-19: Renewable Energy is a Key Part of the Solution,” https://coalition.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Coalition-for-Action/Publication/IRENA_Coalition_COVID-19_response.pdf.
- IRENA (2019), Renewable Energy: A Gender Perspective, January, https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/Renewable-Energy-A-Gender-Perspective.
- Clean Cooking Alliance (CCA) (2020), “OPINION: COVID-19, air pollution and cooking: a deadly connection”, 15 April, https://www.cleancookingalliance.org/about/news/04-15-2020-opinion-covid-19-air-pollution-and-cooking-a-deadly-connection.html
- CCA (2020), “Pandemic Threatens Access to Clean Cooking Energy, Potentially Worsening Air Pollution and COVID-19’s Impact”, 30 April, https://www.cleancookingalliance.org/about/news/04-30-2020-pandemic-threatens-access-to-clean-cooking-energy-potentially-worsening-air-pollution-and-covid-19-s-impact.html.
- Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition (GWNET) (2020), “Opening Opportunities for Women in Energy by building back better!”, 4 June, Opening Opportunities for Women in Energy by building back better!.
- ECOWAS Regional Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE) (2020), “How clean energy can power a COVID-19 recovery”, How clean energy can power a COVID-19 recovery.
- IEA, IRENA, UNSD, World Bank, WHO (2020), Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report, May, https://irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2020/May/SDG7Tracking_Energy_Progress_2020.pdf.
- Ajaita Shah, Frontier Markets, Interview on Covid-19 pandemic on the ground in rural India, https://www.ogunte.com/blog/profile/ajaita-shah-frontier-markets-covid19/