My colleague, Dr Mini Govindan and I discuss while policies are gender-neutral and provide equal opportunities, it doesn't always result in equal outcomes.
It is a well-established fact that electricity empowers women. However, what is not fully understood is the depth and level of empowerment through electricity. With India developing its new energy policy and energy vision 2047, this assumes significance in order to effectively mainstream gender in energy policies.
While there is no universally agreed definition of women's empowerment nor is there a consensus on the best way to empower them. The United Nations broadly defines women empowerment as the process by which women take control and ownership of their lives through the expansion of their choices. In general, women empowerment indicates an increase in economic, social, spiritual and political strength, boosting their self-esteem, enlarging their decision-making power and allowing them better access to resources.
To better understand the process of empowerment-electricity nexus, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) along with the University of Oslo, Norway, is undertaking a research project called “Exploring Factors that Enhance and restrict Women's Empowerment through Electrification” (www.efewee.org ), supported by the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy. The objective is to account for the various factors that enhance and restrict women's opportunities and empowerment through electrification, both as users of electricity services and as (potentially) involved actors in the provision of electricity.
A detailed review was conducted to understand the various aspects of women’s empowerment through provisioning of energy in India and other developing countries of the Global South. While electricity tends to have a positive effect on the lives of women and girls, far too little is known about electricity’s effect on women’s decision-making power, which is central to the definition of empowerment.
Our research show that there is very limited evidence to show that, at the household level, provisioning of electricity has increased the women’s decision-making power than before on matters of major significance such as making investment or on control over resources and property-related matters. While women who gain employment through electrification are likely to be empowered economically, but without insight into decision-making, little is known about the positive effects on gender relations. Further, very rarely women have been in a central role in the supply of electricity.
Our research also reveals that the explanations for electricity’s effects remain unclear. For instance, while it is a common knowledge that electricity reduces the drudgery of women while cooking because of better lighting, a study undertaken by TERI and others show that not more than two-thirds of the households who have electricity in their households have lights in their kitchen.
In many poor households with the option of only one-two light points, the women themselves have avoided the lights in their kitchen so that their children can read and write in proper illumination in the living room, thereby reinforcing women’s role as the caretaker of the family.
The review of electricity policies in India reveals that while policies are gender-neutral and provide equal opportunities to men and women, it does not always result in equal outcomes for both men and women because of the inherent differences in the baseline.
Thus, most of the policies can actually be termed as gender-blind since they do not explicitly acknowledge the differentiated need of men and women for equal outcome. One of the reasons could be that the electricity policies and programs, which form the basis for the expansion of centralized grid systems, have assumed that the benefits will trickle down and be of equal use to women and men. Moreover, the policies primarily focus on women’s domestic role.
However, off-grid programs, which also derive from the same gender-blind policies, offer better anecdotal evidence of gendered outcomes and empowerment. The Jeevika-TERI programme in Bihar, under which women SHG members procure solar home lights and improved cookstoves taking small loan from a revolving fund, which is also managed by SHG federations; or the Frontier Markets in Rajasthan, where “Solar Sahelis” are involved in the sale of solar lights; or the TERI-Shramik Bharati project in Uttar Pradesh, where women-led SHG groups are engaged as diffusion agents to reach end-users, are just some examples of clean energy access projects where women have moved one step forward to empower themselves from just being beneficiaries.
As off-grid projects are usually designed through "bottom-up" approaches, this enabled better participation of women and socially marginalized groups. Wider legislation such as on land and inheritance rights and opportunities for gainful employment affects women’s degree of empowerment through electrification. More attention should thus be focused on how policies in other areas jointly hinder or assist the empowerment of women through electrification and take measures accordingly. As long as the policies remain supply-driven they will continue to be gender-blind, but the moment these policies are designed on the basis of demand, the differentiated needs of both men and women will occur naturally for a similar outcome to women and men.
(The article was first published by the same name in DailyO: Why we need to measure how electricity empowers women)