In the developing world, the day-to-day activities of a rural woman quite often begin before dawn. She wakes early, cooks for her family, minds children or prepares them for school, collects water and firewood, cooks additional meals if there is food, and works the land. A long list transpiring into a very long day. Most of these activities generate little or no income.
In May to June 2011, I completed seven weeks of field research in Western Kenya with very generous funding from Policy Innovation Systems for Clean Energy Security (PISCES). My primary research area was in Nyanza Province in West, East, Central and South Uyoma. A region largely populated by the Luo people with fairly fertile soil and a solid agricultural and forestry base, situated around Lake Victoria. The core research aimed at unpacking issues of gender equity or lack thereof in charcoal production and its value chain. Charcoal, a biomass or fuel derived from plant organic matter, is a commonly used energy source in peri-urban and urban areas. It recently achieved formal market status in Kenya. However, the charcoal value chain exists in a somewhat unstable environment, creating unequal distribution of resources for women and men with men generally holding much more power. It is predominantly a man’s business.
I witnessed firsthand the substantial need for both women’s empowerment as well as increased access to energy. Women are not only the primary agricultural labourers in rural Sub-Saharan Africa, they are often energy fuel collectors and providers as well. They must be considered as relevant as men to energy access and attainment to achieve improved livelihoods. While bearing in mind that gender encompasses both women and men, in most interviews with women, there was an overwhelming response that resources derived from charcoal production, despite the amount of labour put into it by both genders, are heavily controlled by men.
The empowerment of women as the key to reducing or ending poverty is arguably one of the most important aspects of the development agenda. This vital ingredient for successful poverty reduction has yet to be achieved, however. Steps are being made in the right direction with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and a myriad of other development organisations formally recognising the need for programmes that aim towards empowering women in their everyday lives. To date, initiatives have represented the seemingly mundane to the innovative and intriguing. However, programming has yet to achieve any form of substantial gender equity in the developing world and certainly in Africa. I was able to witness this firsthand in Kenya, where international aid programmes have influenced the constitutional aspects of gender inclusion, but so far produced little tangible results on the ground.
Women are often tasked with collecting one of the most basic forms of energy – firewood. In arid land where there is little forest cover and vegetation, an entire day can be spent searching for and collecting firewood. This perpetual task, although necessary for sustaining a family, takes away from child rearing and income generating activities. In Nyanza, very rarely is there an equal division of tasks between a man and woman due to a woman’s reduced status in society. Although I conducted most of my field research in areas with easy access to firewood, control over energy fuel sources, the household and consequently the broader social sphere was highly imbalanced and in favour of men.
With improved energy access, women’s lives become less task laden, allowing for more time and more rest. Improved access to energy affords youth more time to complete schoolwork in non-daylight hours. It reduces the labour that many children endure, like their mothers, in fuel collection. Improved access can effectively target two marginalised groups that often remain trapped in the poverty cycle – women and children. Furthermore, when women are able to participate equally in charcoal production and the value chain and derive resources from their participation, they can effectively generate income, which they have the potential to control. One small-scale charcoal seller interviewed in the Manyuanda Village Market told me her income had clearly increased since she started her business. But when I enquired further, she revealed that her husband controls most of the profit made.
Energy access creates the foundation for women to achieve all components of the UN’s definition of women’s empowerment. With energy, women are able to make decisions regarding income and household duties allowing them access to greater opportunities and resources, which naturally increases self-worth.
The kind of access and control, which improved energy affords women enables them to contribute to social change. They are able to work collectively to achieve goals through a combination of resources that go beyond the economic realm. A support system can be developed through community efforts creating greater social cohesion in largely fragmented societies.
Energy provision is an important arena for creating gender equity between women and men. Through my interviews with different actors along the charcoal value chain, I was able to come to this conclusion. If women’s access to resources improves their livelihoods and empowers them to become more active in society, an environment for greater gender equity is fostered. Empowered individuals in society, both women and men, build civil society organisations and local community groups that help society grow, transform and most importantly, develop. During my research, I held focus group discussions with mixed-gender community-based organisations who work together to improve their own livelihoods as well as the community, through charcoal production and agricultural activities. A secure livelihood means more than basic resources being met. It means being able to express oneself in an open society and achieve the same goals as other members of that society. To reach this goal is to set firmly upon the path of improved livelihoods and ending poverty.
Alannah Delahunty, MSc Africa and International Development