August Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

In some places a small stove can make a big difference. For the women in rural Punjab who bought one, the introduction of a smokeless, two-burner, fuel-efficient stove into their kitchens improved their productivity, health, cash flow and even their marriages.

Conventional thinking does not consider the intersection of energy policy and gender issues, but that is one of the big problems with Pakistan’s national energy policy: not recognising the magnitude of household energy consumption, the fuels predominantly used in homes and the woman’s role in it all.

This occurs because energy policy is viewed with an eye on large-scale energy use and modern fuels, says Sabira Qureshi, an independent development consultant. Consequently, with little access to modern infrastructure, the rural poor, using traditional fuels such as firewood, dung and crop residue, fall off the energy radar. “Policy does not look at energy consumption at the household level in these communities.” This is despite the fact that traditional fuels, or biomass, constitute over 40% of Pakistan’s total energy diet. Guess who loses the most: women.

Household energy is primarily the woman’s responsibility, says Qureshi, who has been part of the women’s movement in Pakistan for more than two decades. The woman, she says, is the one out for hours a day collecting the fuel and ensuring there is enough for cooking the food, heating the house and lighting a room. She is the one to walk long distances and haul heavy loads. And when she is overburdened, her daughter may be forced to stay home to help.

The impacts on a woman’s health, income-earning opportunities and family are huge. Those new stoves in the Punjab helped because they used less fuel (cheaper to run), let off less toxins (better health and cleaner house) and doubled the cooking capacity (increased time with the children and better cooked meals for the husband). While the fuel-efficient stove was a good initiative, says Qureshi, it was nonetheless tokenistic. The government needs to collect the details of energy use in this poor, agri-based segment of society and develop comprehensive, clean and efficient biomass-conversion programmes, she says. Some may be micro-programmes, while others may be small-to-medium-sized enterprises. Some may be done on the community level, while for others, different villages may work together. These can really improve productivity, income levels and quality of life. “Still, all this is the second stage. The first stage is recognition,” states Qureshi. “Right now the government has absolutely no recognition, no articulation of a policy to reflect all the needs of all the people. Without that, poverty reduction goals will never be reached.”