Sexual Violence against Women and Girls: Is Energy part of the Solution?

Tuesday January 20th, 2015 - Smart Villages

“It was a degrading life full of humiliation and shame. We were often victims of rape and beatings by the hoodlums who hid themselves in the forest”  ̶  (An Ethiopian fuel wood carrier, Panjwani, 2005).

Energy provision and sexual violence appear to be distant problems. However, with the possible exception of rural energy supplies in parts of the developing world, everything is connected. I want to propose two key mechanisms through which energy provision might contribute to fighting sexual violence.

So what can better access to energy contribute to the fight? Firstly, street lighting and a reduced need for firewood collection can restrict the area of vulnerability. Secondly, energy can contribute to women’s empowerment through employment, education and health, providing women with economic opportunity and resource control as well as heightening gender awareness.

 Firewood and Lighting:

As of May 13th 2014 the UN refugee agency committed to allowing safe access to fuel and energy for millions of uprooted people. The programme will start by prioritising refugee camps in 10 countries and providing stoves and solar powered lanterns. The director of the UNHCR division of programme support and management, Steven Corliss, claimed that they were hoping to improve lighting for security. “At present when it’s dark and a woman wants to go to the latrine,” he stated, “she puts herself at risk” (UNHCR, 2014). UNIDO also noted that a lack of street lighting can lead to increased violence against women and girls (UNIDO, 2013).

The relationship between firewood collection and sexual violence has been mooted by a variety of sources, including UNIDO (citing Energia/DFID, 2006). The organisation has noted that “violence against women can also occur during daylight hours, in situations where resources are scarce and women are obliged to collect fuel from remote and isolated areas” (UNIDO, 2013). There have certainly been numerous reports of women being raped while out collecting firewood or searching for food and water.

By introducing more efficient and cleaner cook-stoves and so reducing the need for women to collect firewood could we restrict their area of vulnerability? We should keep in mind that sexual violence against women is not only pervasive but a highly “complex, multifaceted” issue and highly context specific (DevPolicy, 2014). We should include not only the extant danger but also the perceived risk when collecting firewood. The IRC found that girls in the Central African Republic were concerned about “presence of armed men in some displacement sites”. They were also “particularly fearful” of an increased risk of rape when collecting firewood (IRC, 2012). Clean cook-stoves also have excellent benefits in terms of health by reducing smoke exposure (to which women are particularly vulnerable), which can lead to a range of deadly/chronic health conditions.

The notion that clean cook-stoves (which reduce the need to collect firewood) can help protect women from rape has been met with some suspicion (DevPolicy, 2014). Whilst some NGO’s have viewed cook-stoves as “a solution to rape and sexual violence in refugee camps”, an evaluation of a UNHCR program to provide firewood to refugee women found that “it was ineffective at reducing the prevalence of rape” (DevPolicy, 2014). Whilst there was a decrease in firewood collection rapes when there was full provision, these periods were accompanied by an increase in “rapes in other locations and contexts” (DevPolicy, 2014). It appears that reducing one area of vulnerability does not necessarily mean the same potential perpetrators (in this case armed men) will not simply find other areas to commit these atrocities.

Credit European Commission DG ECHO

Credit European Commission DG ECHO

 Energy and Empowerment:

 The kinds of problems women face depend on their environment. “Those living in rural areas face different risks to violence and challenges in responding [and] empowering solutions may be different in rural settings” (Soroptimist, 2012). Some of the issues raised by the Soroptimist following meetings with rural women, when sexual violence was discussed included limited Internet access and a lack of understanding of women’s rights (Soroptimist, 2012).

Research has indicated that “education is one of the most effective ways of combating gender based violence [and] understanding discriminatory attitudes and prejudices which condone violence against women and girls is essential if this behaviour is to change” (Soroptimist, 2012). Energy provision can facilitate communication and information sharing on gender issues. A study in Bangladesh revealed that “women in households with electricity were much more aware about gender equality issues than women in households without electricity”. The women in the study cited the television as their chief source of information for gender equality-related knowledge” (Cabraal et al, 2005).

By providing internet access and greater connectivity with the wider world we can also help diminish some of the problems women face in dealing with the aftermath of sexual violence; information can also help alleviate feelings of isolation and helplessness, increase access to support networks (e.g. legal aid or women’s groups), improve healthcare services to victims and facilitate the participation of rural women in dialogues around these issues.

Yet, perhaps most importantly, giving women ownership or at the very least access to energy and technology, changing the resource use patterns in the household and community, can give women more bargaining power/ability to negotiate. This, in turn, can help to shift the social norms that underpin the cycles of sexual violence found in many social structures.

Resource control can act as a form of protection “for instance, against child marriage for girls and intimate partner and domestic violence for women”, as can the ability to negotiate. Empowering women through energy entrepreneurship schemes like Solar Sisters, which uses solar technology and clean cooking solutions to empower women with economic opportunity, can help not only to bring women out of poverty but increase their resource ownership and ability to negotiate and strategize in the household and the community.

As argued in a 2014 South Asia development forum report: “As women’s greater participation in public life- including higher education and employment – eventually becomes the norm, violence may decrease”. Although sexual violence is a widespread and complex, context specific problem for which there is no quick fix; Energy access, by helping to facilitate participation and aiding the ability to negotiate, can then hope to make a positive contribution to tackling violence against women.

Alicia has worked for Smart Villages as a research associate, following her masters in Political Theory at the London School of Economics . Her research interests include gender theory and the politics of gender. She has also spent time at Sandhurst military academy as an intern researching sexual violence against women in conflict.

  1. Cabraal, R, A, Barnes, D, F Agarwal, S,G (2005) ‘Productive Uses of Energy for rural development’ Rev. Environ. Resour. 30(1): 117-144, available at: http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTRENENERGYTK/Resources/5138246-1237906527727/5950705-1239304688925/productiveusesofenergyforrd.pdf
  2. DevPolicy Blog, August 2014, ‘Are Clean Cookstoves a ‘cooked-up’ solution to sexual violence’: http://devpolicy.org/in-brief/are-clean-cookstoves-a-cooked-up-solution-to-sexual-violence-20140807/
  3. IRC, March, 2014, ‘Sexual violence biggest fear for women in Central African Republic, says International Rescue Committee’: http://www.rescue.org/press-releases/sexual-violence-biggest-fear-women-central-african-republic-says-international-rescue
  4. Panjwani, A (2005) ‘Energy as a key variable in promoting gender equality and empowering women: A gender and energy perspective on MDG 3’ Discussion Paper, available at: http://r4d.dfid.gov.uk/PDF/Outputs/Energy/R8346_mdg_goal3.pdf
  5. Solotaroff, J and Prabha Panda, R (2014) “Violence Against Women and Girls: Lessons from South Asia” South Asia Development Forum, World Bank
  6. Soroptimist International, March 2012, ‘Rural Women and Violence’, Monthly Focus File: http://www.soroptimistinternational.org/assets/media/documents/March%20Monthly%20Focus%20Rural%20Women%20and%20Violence%201.pdf
  7. UNHCR, May 2014 ‘UNHCR launches global safe energy strategy to benefit millions’: http://www.unhcr.org/537250486.html
  8. UNIDO, (2013) ‘Sustainable Energy for All: The Gender Dimensions’, available at: unido.org/fileadmin/user_media_upgrade/What_we_do/Topics/Women_and_Youth/GUIDANCENOTE_FINAL_WEB.pdf