The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

Gender and energy issues in the global south: implications for the post-Millennium Development Goals agenda after 2015

Giulia M. Mininni


Introduction: Energy issues in the Global South

According to the World Energy Outlook 2010, 1.4 billion people, about 20% of the global population, lack access to electricity.  The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate that an average of 40% of the global population relies on the use of biomass for cooking (Niez, 2010). They project that by 2035 1.2 billion people will still live without access to electricity and 87% of these people will live in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, India and other Asian countries not including China (Niez, 2010). Studies show that not only do poor countries lack access to electricity, but also that the demand for energy services in such areas is increasing and new projects and policies will be required to address this phenomenon. When developing such policies, it is necessary to consider the roles of both men and women, as energy is a concern of the society as a whole. The social interactions between men and women, their relationship with energy in terms of access, demand and use is not ‘gender neutral’ and this needs to be accounted for (Skutsch, 1998, 946-947).

Women’s role in energy development in mainstreaming energy planning has been ignored in the past. However, awareness about gender concerns in energy projects and policies has been growing thanks to the pressure that women from both northern and southern countries have applied to have better recognition of their needs and rights (Cecelski, 1995). There is a growing understanding that the issues of price, kind and availability of energy have separate and distinct effects on women and men since both genders use energy differently. Also the level of access to energy differs between the two genders and changes in energy policies or interventions might ‘bring different problems and opportunities’ (Skutsch, 1998, 946-947).  In addition to different impacts, uses and benefits deriving from energy access, consideration should be given to the issue that the actions of one might influence the opportunities of the other (Clancy, 2004, 1).1 Finally, there also appears to be confusion in the jargon between the use of ‘women and energy’ and ‘gender and energy’ in the global south as it seems they can be interchangeable. However, whilst the latter includes the first, the opposite does not automatically happen (Clancy, 2004, 1).

Gender refers to the roles of both men and women in society; that is why the literature refers to this term rather than to ‘sex’, which implies only biological differences. Gender roles and responsibilities vary in different cultural and geographical contexts and over time (Schultz). For this reason, continuous participation in the decision-making on energy policies of both men and women should be required at strategic level.

Differences in energy use between men and women: benefits and constraints

As stated previously, over the years some disparity in the use of energy between men and women has been recognised due to their different roles and responsibilities. In particular, it has been acknowledged that women’s responsibility for fuel procurement in order to support the household consequently has health implications due to the drudgery of the work and the frequent exposure to the burning fuels; these factors have been the objects of policy changes and projects implementation. However, very often gender differences and issues in relation to energy have been limited to household management and cooking practices (Klingshirn, 2000 and Kanagawa, 2008).2

Instead, women became more and more involved in economic activities requiring energy, such as small business enterprises (Skutsch). Access to energy could initiate new opportunities for women’s economic growth through the set-up of local businesses (Kaygusuz). Moreover, sustainable energy services are fundamental to shift out of poverty and to contribute to a feeling of wellbeing, which is one of the most important objectives of development (Clancy, 2004).

Drawing on theories of empowerment and equality, feminist theories on development have emphasised that empowerment is a transformational process. ‘Em-power’ entails giving power to those marginalised and oppressed. Empowerment works at different levels in the society and includes the individual, the household and the institutional level. Women should be given the ‘power to’ participate in the decision-making process, access resources, and be able by themselves to solve problems and situations; the ‘power within’ their life to develop self-confidence and awareness, and the ‘power with’ which to organise themselves to achieve common goals (Kabeer, 1999 and Oxaal and Baden, 1997). Also looking at theories of equality between genders in society, these imply a fair system of distribution of rights, power and money between men and women (Skutsch, 1998 and Unterhalter, 2005).3

Equal distribution and access to energy services directly contributes to foster gender equality and women’s empowerment by releasing women’s time constraints due to chores and heavy work, and indirectly by opening up opportunities to work in the energy labour sector, set up micro enterprises or to be engaged in educational activities (Kaganawa).

On the basis of these theories, there are some important aspects that planners need to reflect upon when planning for energy projects. Having recognised unequal gender relations in society, gender planning should ensure that policies, programmes and projects will address gender differences to enable equal participation and benefits (Wieringa, 1994 and Clancy, 2004).  For instance, once a village is provided with electricity it might be difficult to identify which gender benefits from improved energy services: it becomes hard to tell how energy is used and by whom. Also, if the price of kerosene increases it can be challenging to know who is going to be affected the most between men and women (Skutsch, 1998).4

Moreover, concerns should arise in regards to the amount of metabolic energy that women waste on household work, mostly due to water and fuel collection, field preparation and lifting weights.5 These survival activities can take up to 20 hours or more per week. Women’s metabolic energy is also used to travel to the resource location (Mehretu, 1992 and UNDP, 2007). Pumps, mills and other electrical machinery could ease women’s work and improve their health conditions. Also transport options for household fuels and agricultural produce can help minimise women’s drudgery. These kinds of solutions are an example of gender related energy solutions as the tasks they could be applied to are gender specific (Mehretu, 1992 and Bryceson, 1994).

The table below (Table 1) summarises the main constraints faced by women in accessing and benefitting from energy services. Decisions in regards to fuels used, domestic infrastructures such as type of cooking stoves and ventilation, energy appliances in the house and lighting choices are usually made by men, although women are the ones directly affected by these decisions in their daily lives (Mohideen). When women’s drudgery is eased by the introduction of energy services, they will be empowered by having the opportunity to participate in economic and community activities, which in the end will benefit the whole family (Clancy, 2004).

Table 1:

Women’s constraints in accessing and benefitting from energy services

Lack of control to land and property

This limits women from benefitting from energy systems that require land such as solar systems or wind turbines.

Lack of income

Women have little or no income as everything is spent for the household needs so they cannot invest in machinery to ease their work.

Lack of access to technology

Women cannot develop professionally and increase their income.

Lack of participation in decision making

Women’s needs are not represented and they are not able to make a choice for themselves.

Lack of education and training

This creates a constraint to their professional development and, as a consequence to develop their income generation opportunities.

Lack of access to credit

Most women in developing countries do not have a bank account, so they cannot benefit from financial and extension incentives and they cannot participate in the business sphere.

Source: Danielsen, 2012 and Oparaocha, 2011.

Gender inequality and discrimination is also evident in the energy labour market and education; only men take part in training and they are the ones subsequently employed in the energy market. Women have often been seen as ‘passive users and consumers of energy’ (Clancy, 2004, 19).  However, this is not the case: this kind of discrimination prevents women’s empowerment and the development of their working skills. Studies show how clean rural electrification can contribute to women’s empowerment and gender equality and also achieve better women’s and children health (Saxena). Also, a strong relationship between access to electricity and income has been recognised. With an income increase it becomes easier to access electricity, and conversely, access to electricity can increase income opportunities. However, it is not only the access to energy that needs to be taken into account; its reliability should also be considered to ensure sustainable economic growth (Oparaocha).

Given that most women led microenterprises are home-based, access to reliable energy and electrical appliances is essential to improve their production and the quality of their products, and ensure enterprise development. However, to start up a business or to expand it access to capital would be required. As mentioned in Table 1, usually women cannot access credit as they are not allowed property rights.6 The most commonly used solutions to overcome these issues are accessing microcredit schemes and joining women saving groups. However, there are two important considerations to be made. Firstly, project-based microcredit schemes usually lend a small amount of money for a defined and brief period. In this case then questions arise in regard to the sustainability of projects in the long term. Secondly, it is unknown how much of the credit is solely used by women in their household, and to what extent the credit is actually accessed by men as well. Often saving groups might offer better ownership for women and have an impact on the resources of the community rather than relying of external financial support (Denton).

Training on the safe use of electric appliances and energy efficiency, as well as on the use of renewable energy technologies, should be provided in the household especially due to the frequent power cuts and unreliable quality of energy supply (Mohideen). Issues of energy and technology ownership might arise not only in consideration of gender discrimination, but also in regards to the caste system. Access to energy by women might be uneven among castes and ethnic minorities (Mohideen). Women often have traditional knowledge in resource management; however, rural women continue to be marginalised and discriminated and are not able to further develop their knowledge as part of renewable energy development (Kelkar).

The perceptions of the benefits deriving from energy access are also different between men and women. The latter will invest in children’s education, improving healthcare and household safety and reducing the workload. However, men for example would mostly use fuel for tractors to reduce their own workload. This will not have any positive impact on women and children in the household. Moreover, very little priority is given by governments to investment in public services, such as street lighting, which could reduce women’s vulnerability and improve their safety (Mohideen). Financial support for women led businesses, gender sensitive policies and regulations, as well as the collection of sex-disaggregated data, are essential to foster opportunities resulting from energy access (Mohideen). The collection of gender disaggregated data is important as their analysis can offer a better understanding of women’s needs and priorities. Efforts should be made to encourage the collection of gender-disaggregated data of energy use, supply and impacts by governments and gender analysis in project evaluation, which do not consistently happen (Cecelski, 2000, Clancy, 2012 and Hafner-Burton, 2002).

Projects and policy implications

A gender analysis that would look at the community as a whole and at the relationships between men and women would acknowledge that access to modern energy services is essential to improve people’s lives through the provision of clean water, sanitation and healthcare. Electricity provision will also ensure reliable lighting, heating, cooking, telecommunication services and mechanical power useful for income generation activities which will benefit both, women and the broader community (Batliwala, 2003, Kanase-Patil, 2010 and Chaurey, 2004). Approaching planning and project implementation with a gender perspective can be advantageous for both the project management and the community (Clancy, 2004).

In order to address gender disparity, at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, Objective G of the Platform for Action called for gender mainstreaming ‘in all policies and programmes so that before decisions are taken, an analysis is made of the effects on women and men, respectively’ (ECOSOC, 1995). On the same line, in 2001, governments committed to ‘support equal access for women to sustainable and affordable energy technologies through needs assessments, energy planning and policy formulation at the local and national level’ (ECOSOC, 2001). For the first time the existence of gender and energy issues was officially recognised. However, still these policies are not implemented in practice by governments.

Although more recently, liberal democratic governments have gradually incorporated the gender component in their policies and programmes, potentially promoting women’s empowerment by adopting gender equality, project practice does not always reflect policy aims (Skutsch, 2005).7 This is what Derbyshire refers to when she talks about ‘policy evaporation’ (Derbyshire, 9). ‘Policy evaporation’ refers to the situation in which policy goals and objectives are partially or not at all pursued, and this happens particularly because most of the projects, even if participatory, do not start as a blank sheet (Derbyshire, 9).  Instead they offer beneficiaries a limited range of possibilities to address their aims. To achieve a transformation in the gender relations, empowerment and equality need to be pursued not only at regulatory level but also in daily life by changing the social and cultural relations and ensuring women’s access to resources. In this case, the focus shifts from the development of women as a ‘women’s concern’ to becoming a societal issue (Skutsch, 2005).

To ensure that the gender component is present at every stage in the planning process, good practice would be to develop a set of indicators related to gender goals. This is a way to mainstream gender consideration into energy provision. Indicators and goals should be dictated directly by the beneficiaries who better know their priorities, rather than being decided by external agents (Karlsson, 2003). A step forward would be integrating gender issues into the project cycle model. Over the years several authors have looked into defining energy project objectives in terms of men and women (i.e. formulating gender goals), identifying opportunities and limitations to the involvement of women in projects, and considering any eventual negative impacts that could affect women (Karlsson and Clancy). These author’s experiences show that by asking gender related questions at each stage of the project cycle, women’s priorities, access, control and project impacts can be better addressed. It also shows that while there is no blueprint to be followed but by proceeding in this way it is easier to address gender questions (Skutsch, 2005).

Energy initiatives at international level

Several funding opportunities and initiatives at international level have been established to support energy access for the rural poor. For the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, for instance, to be successful in achieving Universal Energy Access by 2030 a requisite should be the recognition of a full range of energy services for the local communities and not just the connection at household level. Recommendations by Practical Action include the promotion of service-based access to electricity rather than a supply-based approach (Practical Action, 2013).

Affordability is another important issue to take into account when looking at energy diffusion. For low-income households the upfront cost for connections is usually very high (Bhattacharyya). Households might spend up to 10-30% of income on energy. This means that even if the electricity is available, not every household can afford to pay for it. According to a study carried out by Practical Action, in order to increase equality in accessing electricity, the limit on electricity expenditure per household should be 10% of the income (Bensch et al., 2010 and Practical Action and GIZ, 2011). Therefore, even where energy services are available, lack of affordability excludes poor women from accessing the services. To improve household connectivity, public consultations should take into consideration the issue that high tariff levels do not reflect women’s income and create a constraint to their access to energy. Affordability criteria should be gender sensitive and establish grants or cheap credit facilities for poor women (Mohideen).

Looking at the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the United Nations, it is evident that neither their targets nor their indicators refer to energy. However, access to electricity must play a variety of essential direct and indirect roles in achieving the MDGs, as various studies have shown (DFID 2002, Kanagawa and Nakata, 2008 and Sovacool, 2012). Yet, also looking at the gender component of the MDGs, there is only one goal that specifically refers to ‘gender equality and empowerment of women’ (Goal 3). Ideally though, each MDG should consider gender as a key component (Ramani, 2003 and Havet, 2003). Table 2 below provides an example of how gender and energy can be linked to each of the MDGs in supporting the provision of essential services.

Table 2:

Gender and Energy in the MDGs

Goal 1

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Access to modern energy assists economic growth by providing more efficient and healthier means for both household and productive activities. Electricity can be used for water pumping providing drinking water and for machines to irrigate agricultural fields. Women in particular spend less time processing agricultural products and can boost their production by using machineries.

Goal 2

Achieve universal primary education.  In poor communities children can often spend a significant amount of time fetching water and fuel-wood, access to electricity can increase their school attendance. It can also contribute to their education through access to means of communication and lighting. Increase in women’s revenues allows mothers to send their daughters to school.

Goal 3

Promote gender equality and empower women.  Women living in poor communities, spend a considerable amount of time gathering cooking fuel and water. Access to modern energy sources reduces the physical burden associated with wood carrying and also widens women’s employment opportunities by spending more time in productive activities. Additionally, street lighting improves women’s mobility and safety and allows them to take part in community activities.

Goal 4, 5 & 6

Reduce child mortality; Improve maternal health; and
combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Given that most staple foods require cooking, access to clean energy will diminish the exposure to fumes that can cause respiratory diseases. By boiling the water the spread of waterborne deceases will be decreased. Modern and more efficient energy services support the functioning of health clinics and hospitals. Excessive workload and heavy manual labour may affect pregnant women’s health and well-being. Also, electricity provides lighting of maternity wards and better delivery conditions.

Goal 7

Ensure environmental sustainability. Modern cooking fuels and more efficient cook-stoves can relieve pressures on the environment caused by the unsustainable use of biomass. The promotion of low-carbon renewable energy is congruent with the protection of the environment locally and globally as traditional cooking fuels contribute to local deforestation, soil degradation and erosion. Using cleaner energy also reduces greenhouse-gas emissions and global warming. Women have a better knowledge of natural resources management.

Goal 8

Develop a global partnership for development. Electricity is essential to improve information and communications technology applications for the community. Women will have better chances to be informed.

Source: Content adapted by the author from Oparaocha, 2011 and Shyu, 2014.

As the MDGs are due in 2015, members of the UN have since 2010, been debating about a new framework post-2015. Based on a review of the MDGs the post-2015 UN development agenda should aim at ensuring access to electricity and meeting minimum basic electricity needs of the ‘energy poor’ (Shyu).8 One of the goals of the Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (AGECC), established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, is achieving universal ‘access to clean, reliable and affordable energy services for cooking and heating, lighting, communications and productive uses’ by 2030 (AGECC, 2010). This proposal represents a landmark in relation to the issues related to energy access. However, given that it will evolve in the future, it is of critical importance for governments and the international community to discuss the implications for the poor of the definition of ‘access to energy’ (Shyu).

It should also be remembered that in the past, big infrastructure projects have often prioritised the demands of urban areas and industrial consumers rather than addressing the needs of the rural poor. In addition, they ended up satisfying the interests of people in power, encouraging corruption rather than democratic control over the resources and investments (Bosshard).9 Community managed systems can ensure better transparency of the control over and access to the resources shared by the community and, therefore, be less prone to corruption (Verzola).

Similar critique is supported by a study of ActionAid in India, for which, notwithstanding increased investments in electricity production by different sources (such coal-fired power plants and large hydropower stations), household energy issues in rural areas have only marginally or not sufficiently been addressed (Bast). The study also highlights that small-scale decentralised energy systems enable better ‘bottom up’ participation of poor women and other marginalised groups. Small-scale decentralised energy options are more suitable for rural areas in that they offer cost-effective and reliable alternatives to the grid (Byrne). By giving ownership over the energy scheme, they ensure better inclusion and empowerment of vulnerable groups: women for instance can contribute to the schemes through self-help groups (Batliwala). The whole community can benefit from the energy service for irrigation, food preservation, crop procession and other activities (Kanase-Patil). Decentralised systems are also less expensive and more efficient in terms of energy distribution as they are closer to the point of use (Chow).

The MDGs have been criticised under many aspects. In relation to what is analysed in this paper, it is worthwhile mentioning the issue that they have been strongly dominated by northern Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) rather than southern civil organisations.  Also, although providing a clear framework for their achievement, they were concerned on inputs rather than on outcomes (Karver et al).10 Another major critique that by someone has been seen as strength is that the goals were too narrow focused and did not take into account different geographical or county-specific contexts (UN Task Team). Hence, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should seek a more bottom up approach with decisions taken at national level and with the involvement of the civil society. They would need to focus on the outcomes, to be supported by the development of a set of indicators for each goal and be more context-specific (Loewe).

Universal goals need to be split into specific targets at national level as some countries should be prioritised against others depending on their development, capacities level and the availability of resources. The SDGs also need to show a degree of flexibility over time as county conditions might change (Nilsson et al). There is consensus that the SDGs should look at disaggregated data in order to assess the development progress of social and economic aspects (including also gender and energy) of more marginalised communities. Inequalities have often been covered by measuring development in an aggregate way (Higgins). Also, a discussion on the policy mechanisms to address gender relations in the energy spectrum should be ensured together with a special focus on training and capacity building for those communities (Gupta).


Worldwide 1.4 million people lack access to electricity, the majority of which live in rural areas of the global south. Studies have shown how access to energy services can improve the living conditions of people residing in off-grid areas. The absence of the provision of energy services impacts the local environment due to deforestation and the diffusion of greenhouse gases (Li).  Relying on unsustainable sources of energy such as charcoal and kerosene, and being exposed to the fumes deriving by such sources of energy, women especially suffer the consequences of energy service deficiency from different angles such as in terms of access, use, benefits, training, income generation and participation in the decision-making process (Dutta).

In order to tackle these issues and to ensure the efficiency of projects focusing on energy provision, the process of planning, implementation and maintenance of energy services needs to be gender sensitive (Clancy, 2012 and Skutsch, 2005). Governments at international level have committed to mainstream gender in policy and planning and in achieving universal access to energy. However, there is still a lack of consistency between what is on paper and the implementation of gender aware policies on the ground. One of the critiques to policy and planning creation and implementation is that often they are still based on aggregated data and they still miss gender-disaggregated data. These can give a better perspective on women’s needs and priorities (Higgins). Solutions to energy poverty at local level can be offered by small scale decentralised energy services; these are proven to be more prone to community engagement and are more cost-effective (Rabbani).

The MDGs are due next year, and, in light of the absence of a goal focused on energy and of a specific link to gender equality in energy, the post-MDGs agenda could look into offering opportunities for contributing to energy poverty reduction by implementing decentralised renewable energy solutions in off-grid rural areas of the global south. The new agenda should also seek to address gender equality on energy access and use by developing gender aware policies on energy. The framework could represent a unique opportunity to influence policy making at national and global level and could contribute to institutional change (Higgins). However a continuous dialogue at national level should be ensured throughout the process looking also at country specific issues (Nilsson et al).

Moving forward, to address gender disparity in energy use the SDGs not only should look into improving or expanding the access to energy services, but also to transform gender relations and roles in the society in a way that would take into consideration women’s interests and needs both in terms of their daily routines and for the long term (Gupta). The SDGs should also aspire at much higher achievements on energy provision and service with a vision on industry, public service and businesses growth (Bazilian, 2013 and World Bank, 2013).



1 Clancy (2004) provides an example of how activities that require the use of electricity in the household can have different impacts on men and women. For instance, for security issues, men would probably locate the light outside the house, whilst women would maybe install it in the kitchen to allow all households members to benefit from it.

2 Household energy is seen by many authors as linked to other sectors such as education (after-school study for children), health (nutrition, absence of smoke deriving from the burning of cooking fuel) and income generation (working from home) and not only the more traditional cooking use (Klingshirn, 2000).

3 An elaboration of the theories on empowerment and equality goes beyond the confines of this article.

4 Poor households in rural areas usually spend 20% of their income on fuels and its use is often restricted to lighting (Barnes, 1995).

5 Women end up spending several hours a day gathering fuelwood lots of 20 kg or more (Smith, 1999).

6 Banks are generally reluctant to give loans to women as they don’t have assets (Baden et al, 1994).

7 Gender equality strives for the integration of gender into planning and practice (Walby, 2005). Rees (1998) recognises three models of gender equality. The first, defined as ‘tinkering’ with gender inequalities pushes for sameness between men and women in male dominating rules; the second, called ‘tailoring’ identifies gender differences and seeks to fit women needs; the third, described as ‘transformation’, dictates a new standard for everyone to change gender relations (Walby, 2005 and Rees, 1998).

8 An agreement will also be required on the definition on basic electricity needs.

9 For instance a report by International Rivers that criticised the infrastructure strategy of the Group 20 and the World Bank shows that between 2000-2008 less than 1% of the World Bank investments were for biomass energy and cooking in Africa and globally (Bosshard, 2012).

10 For example the MDGs aimed at achieving education and equality in accessing education rather than targeting learning, literacy and gender equality (Camfield, 2013).

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