From Rajasthan to Mexico: why gender matters at the heart of the energy transition

An opinion piece by Costanza Burstin, Mouna Chambon, Morgane Ollier and Cécile Spanu

Words

Costanza Burstin, Mouna Chambon, Morgane Ollier and Cécile Spanu

This article was featured in The Beam #9 – Subscribe now for more.


 

In 2013, the climate negotiations (COP19) culminated with a promising consensus for women across the world: gender was voted as an independent agenda item in the international climate talks. Since then, gender has been increasingly integrated into the context of climate action, paving the way for gender-neutral climate policies. At the same time, national and local climate challenges spurred a new discussion on the place of women in the energy transition, as women still disproportionately bear the costs of climate change.

Today, more than 1.1 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity, of which the majority are women. When it comes to energy access and uses, gender inequalities are blatant. In many societies, women play a key role in energy systems at the local level. They are often responsible for collecting fuelwood, which implies walking long distances and exposition to air pollution at home.

Since women are the primary users of energy, they are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change impacts. Energy policies failing to reach women are thus exacerbating potential climate risks for them. In addition, gender inequalities limit women’s access to finance streams, information or training for using sustainable energy sources. Taking a gender lens approach is thus crucial for minimising such bias and ensuring equal access to energy for both women and men.

In this context, the development of clean energy schemes appears as a solution for both climate mitigation and women empowerment. Such innovations are increasingly focusing on small-scale technologies such as solar panels and cookstoves. These modern energy services suit the needs of local communities and play a transformative role in the lives of women. By bringing energy at home, these local infrastructures have ripple effects, from health improvement to boosting income. Women can also save time in the day since they don’t need to collect wood far away from home.

Not only can clean energy support women empowerment, but it also drives a paradigm shift. Moving away from a vulnerability-centred narrative leads us to reconsider the active role of women in the energy transition, and the urgent necessity to mainstream their work. Women are part of the solution! Far from being only mere “beneficiaries”, women do also take part in expanding access to clean energies for all. Engaging women to deliver energy at the community level can help raise awareness of the advantages of renewable energy.

Rajasthan: a story of women, energy and firewood

Women collecting firewood in Gajner, Rajasthan - © Costanza Burstin Women collecting firewood in Gajner, Rajasthan - © Costanza Burstin

Globally, 25% black carbon emission comes from solid fuel burning and most of this percentage is emanated from South Asian regions.

In India, firewood is still a principal source of energy and it is used by approximately 70% of the population, especially within the domestic sector of rural areas. In Asian society, the type of household energy consumption often represents the social status and the economic development of a certain family or community. Not being able to afford cleaner alternative energies such as LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas), most of the inhabitants of rural territories use firewood as a principal source of energy. They burn solid fuel such as wood and other residues like crops and animal dung in order to meet the essential energy needs for their daily activities, especially cooking and heating.

This issue is particularly pronounced in the northwest desert region of Rajasthan (India). Besides some major cities, this territory is mostly rural, and it is characterised by several isolated villages in which the access to external socio-economic infrastructures such as electricity, gas connection and water are extremely complicated. In such a context, local communities who generally live below the poverty line on self-subsistence activities do not have other options other than the use of traditional firewood, locally called chulha, as a form of ‘subsistence’ energy for their survival and their families. Fuelwood as a livelihood strategy in rural domestic Rajasthan has a very specific gender impact as well.

“Women, having to carry excessive loads of wood over long distance every day, are at risk to develop serious postural, musculoskeletal and genital problems.”

In Rajasthani communities, providing for cooking and heating within the private and domestic sphere is traditionally considered a female role. Women and girls are often the ones responsible for searching, collecting and loading firewood for their family. This consuming and exhausting task implies spending a significant amount of time each day searching and transporting fuelwood. The women responsible for these duties wake up around 5 am, — when it is still dark — and start their day walking for miles to reach the closest forest and collect wood for their family needs. Each of these women transport on average approximately eight to 10 kilograms of wood every day.

This time-consuming daily routine not only limits women’s life opportunities in terms of earnings and education, perpetuating a cycle of poverty, but it also has serious health consequences. Women, having to carry excessive loads of wood over long distance every day, are at risk to develop serious postural, musculoskeletal and genital problems. Moreover, being responsible for burning wood for cooking and heating within the households, they are particularly exposed and affected by the indoor air pollution (HAP) caused by the inefficient burning solid biomass cooking fuel.

Saira cooking with chula — © Costanza Burstin

But firewood practices, especially related to cooking, are rooted in local traditions. While some isolated rural communities are just starting to have access to other sources of energy such as LPG, most families are still culturally tied to the conventional use of firewood. Saira, a young woman from the Muslim community of Modiya, a small village situated in the province of Bikaner at the border with Pakistan, explains: “I like to cook on chulha. Even if it is hard because of the smoke, I prefer to make food on chulha because it tastes better and it takes a shorter time. With gas, it takes one hour to prepare everything, while with chulha only half an hour”.

Better access to alternative fuel energies and cleaner cooking solutions in rural Rajasthan, besides improving the local ecosystem, can also have a positive impact on women’s lives. It certainly increases their life opportunities at both personal and community levels while reducing their risk of injuries and health issues related to firewood practices. But in order to make this work, it is essential to integrate these new forms of alternative energies within the traditional habits, locally accepted and recognised.

If energy transition provides solutions for tackling energy poverty and supporting women empowerment, it can also engender unintended consequences. In Mexico, large-scale energy projects have led to water grabbing in indigenous communities, thus strengthening gender inequalities.

Mexico: water grabbing for energy transition and its consequences on indigenous communities

The state of Chiapas in southern Mexico is home to one of the largest indigenous populations in the country, with several recognised ethnicities. The state is also well-known for its natural energy resources such as water, forests, minerals and oil. Yet, in the last decades, forests have been widely exploited for their wood, rivers dried for hydroelectric dam constructions and wells drained by exploiting companies, causing irreversible damages for surrounding local populations.

Mexico’s rapid economic expansion contributed to exacerbating inequalities, causing the impoverishment of many local groups, largely marginalised by the governments in place. These same governments, following a profit-oriented strategy, massively privatised the country’s natural resources, and especially Chiapas’ precious waters, its major source of energy for electricity production, at the expense of the biodiversity and its population. Today, five of the largest hydroelectric dams in Mexico are located in Chiapas and produce nearly half of the country’s hydroelectric power. These massive scale projects, under the guise of the energy transition, have caused not only environmental destructions but also the displacement of many indigenous populations.

In addition to these ethnic concerns, water is also at the heart of community empowerment issues. Flowing from their sources or rivers, local populations have used and valued water as a precious asset for hundreds of years. With it being threatened, local communities lack access to basic needs.

“Indigenous women, because of gendered roles and the traditional labour division, continue to bear the cost of ongoing contact with soiled water, and scarce access to running water threatens their basic life requirements.”

Today, fingers point towards governmental policies, mainly overlooking grassroots voices and views, disapproving those projects for most of the time. For example, the company FEMSA which manages Coca-Cola in Mexico owns three deep wells to date and extracts one million litres of clean and safe drinking water per day from them. This exploitation leads to well droughts, forcing communities to buy bottled water or walking long distances to access clean water, denying their right to basic needs and limiting their potential for other activities.

The lack of access to drinking water has important repercussions on women and more specifically indigenous women. If women’s health is at stake, safety is also of concern. In fact, Indigenous women, because of gendered roles and the traditional labour division, continue to bear the cost of ongoing contact with soiled water, and scarce access to running water threatens their basic life requirements. Additionally, extreme weather events such as floods or droughts have also intensified male displacements, leaving women in worrying conditions and limiting their capabilities for empowerment.

In the Indigenous tradition, women are labelled as the “supervisor of the household” and thus responsible for water management in the family. Water is needed throughout the day, whether for cooking, washing clothes or dishes and cleaning the home. Water is also essential to their farming activities, providing a mean of subsistence. But collecting water causes health problems in the long term due to the effort of carrying buckets over long distances. The daily journey increases the vulnerability of women and, in some cases, expose them to sexual misconducts.

Woman washing family’s clothes in the river with her children — © Cécile Spanu
Woman washing family’s clothes in the river with her children — © Cécile Spanu

Against this backdrop, many organisations have decided to take action. Agua y Vida, located in the city of San Cristobal, Chiapas, is one of them. Its work consists of creating spaces for dialogue among women and support their empowerment in a context of water scarcity. The NGO supports the autonomy of indigenous women in Chiapas as wells as their capacity to form and organise themselves. Agua y Vida also advocates for the recognition of Article 3 of the Mexican Constitution, which recognises the access to safe drinking water as a human right.

The NGO also supports the development of tools that enable food self-sufficiency and a healthy environment. It also offers courses on permaculture techniques, a form of agriculture that requires limited amounts of water. Permaculture is seen here as a means of economic, social and political resistance, rather than a small-scale solution.

The response to the changing climate threats has posed new social challenges. On the one hand, women need to be equally considered in the transition to clean energies, as leaders of change. But they must also be recognised as empowered individuals, bringing crucial knowledge needed in these times of crisis. In short, addressing energy poverty globally implies a true gender-based energy transition.

Costanza Burstin is a visual anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, and the Research Co-Director of CliMates. After having worked as a researcher on gender and environmental issues in India, she specialised in visual research and filmmaking. She is now working on a visual ethnographic project about interactions among women, water and natural resources in a desert community in Rajasthan (India).

Mouna Chambon is a researcher in political ecology and a climate activist. She launched the Gender and Climate Change project in January 2017, in order to document the gender bias of climate change, while considering at the same time the opportunities of women to empower themselves in this context.

Morgane Ollier is a climate researcher focused on inclusive climate action. Previously based in Montreal, where she researched the nexus between inclusion and sustainable mobility, Morgane is now based in Paris and committed as the Vice-President of CliMates, a youth think-and-do tank from which the Gender and Climate Change project has emerged.

Cécile Spanu is a journalist, photographer, translator, feminist and ecological activist. She currently focuses her work on a long term project about “Women and Climate Change”, specifically interviewing, documenting and translating the lives of Indigenous People in Chiapas, Mexico, then expanding to other parts of the country or the rest of the world.


 

This article was published in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global South. Subscribe to The Beam Magazine to read more.

This piece is also available on our Medium page.