International Women’s Day: Environmentally-friendly stoves reduce risk of sexual assault

There is little doubt that improving the environment can dramatically boost the quality of life, security and social standing of women across the world.

In perhaps one of the most startling examples, a joint UNEP-UNDP backed pilot project led by Malawi’s Department of Energy  that reduces the number of trees cut down for firewood has also decreased the risk of sexual assault that women suffer when they enter forests to gather wood.

Energy-efficient stoves were made available to residents in four districts in Malawi, a country with the highest rate of deforestation in southern Africa. The stoves use high-density briquettes that last longer than wood, reducing the number of trees that are chopped down while decreasing negative impacts on the climate and improving women’s health.

The new ceramic stoves, which are made from local clay, have also dramatically cut the number of hours local women spend searching for firewood in the forest.

Malita Sabili, who has begun to use the briquettes in her home, said that the cleaner, more efficient stoves have not only freed up time and improved her health but have also reduced the risk she runs of being sexually assaulted whenever she enters the forests to collect firewood.

“Around the world violent conflicts are regularly financed by exploiting natural resources. The impact on the environment is devastating, but for women it is appalling. For women like Malita, an efficient stove doesn’t just reduce health risks or environmental impact; it reduces the risk being sexually assaulted, for instance, while collecting firewood,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director.

“Sadly, such stories just scratch the surface. To better serve all women, we need to understand the complexities of everything from land rights and education to technology and the green economy.”

Women are also involved in marketing and selling the stoves, boosting female entrepreneurship.

The pilot project, which was supported by a UNEP-UNDP programme called the Poverty-Environment Initiative (PEI), was so successful that Malawi’s government now plans to produce and distribute a further two million stoves as part of a national “cookstove roadmap” designed to improve access to cleaner energy across the country.

As the world prepares to celebrate International Women’s Day, projects like these underscore the essential need to involve women in any efforts to mitigate climate change, prevent the loss of biodiversity and reduce chemical and other forms of pollution.

To achieve this, the PEI programme, which helps governments adopt policies and budgets that benefit the poor and the environment, is ramping up efforts to ensure that government policies take into account the vital role women play in the economy and the environment.

The economic argument for ensuring that women are placed at the heart of government policy is compelling. By failing to close the gap between men and women, which is the theme of this year’s international women’s day, governments will continue to lose millions of dollars in revenue every year.

In Tanzania’s agricultural sector, for example, the government loses $105 million per year because female farmers are less productive than their male counterparts, according to a groundbreaking report launched by UNDP-UNEP PEI together with UN Women and the World Bank.

The reasons for this are simple. Female farmers often lack access to labour, knowledge, fertiliser and improved seeds. Among the most vulnerable in society, women also tend to avoid planting cash crops, which are riskier than growing crops to feed their families. This further reduces the amount of money they can earn from their farms.

Bringing female agricultural production up to the same level as men chimes with the theme for this year’s international women’s day. The theme, “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”, is designed to draw specific attention to two of the 2030 sustainable development goals: achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls; and ensuring quality education for all.

PEI pilot projects in Africa have shown time and again that putting women at the heart of efforts to improve the environment and lift people out of poverty can have wide ranging impacts.

In Tanzania, the PEI team worked with officials in the Sengerema district to install 10 biogas plants that use manure and other organic farm waste to produce six cubic metres of biogas every day.

The use of biogas has reduced the amount of time women spend on firewood collection from six hours to one hour per day. Deforestation has slowed, women’s health and hygiene has improved thanks to smoke-free kitchens, and agricultural productivity and food security has increased.

Projects like these are a way of demonstrating to governments the importance of investing in inclusive sustainable environment and natural resource management.

PEI Africa also works with governments to mitigate some of the negative impacts that environmentally-sound policies can sometimes have on society’s most vulnerable women.

In Rwanda, the government’s ban on plastic bags has left female street vendors struggling to run their businesses, which often rely on the use of plastic bags.

PEI Africa partnered with government officials in Kigali to train 110 female street vendors in how to set up co-operatives that can access funds from the government’s National Environment and Climate Change Fund (FONERWA). If their applications are successful, the women will be able to use the funds to produce alternative, environmentally-friendly packaging that they can sell to customers.

But PEI’s training is also targeted at government officials and policymakers. The training, which is the most essential part of PEI Africa’s gender work, aims to teach key leaders why gender concerns need to be incorporated into macro-economic and environmental policies.

There are signs that the gender-sensitive training is already paying off. Malawi’s draft agricultural policy now includes strong commitments to empower the lives of female farmers.

One policy objective in the new draft states: ‘[The government of Malawi will seek to] Increase women’s and youth’s access, ownership, and control of productive agricultural assets by 50 per cent.”

“We need to increase this type of training so we see similar improvements across Africa,” said Moa Westman. “This is not just a woman’s problem: men can also benefit from improving the lives of women. Men need to know that they don’t have to be the only ones who provide. They can also be at home with the children. It is about changing mindsets.”