So what's the conclusion - does electricity influence gender relations?09 January 2019
by Tanja Winther
We in the EFEWEE team have now completed our study of electricity and gender relations in selected parts of rural Nepal, India and Kenya. The conclusion is mixed.
Recruiting women in supply can be transformative
From a gender equality perspective, the arrival of electricity was only transformative in the short term when women had a hands-on role in the supply of electricity. Among the 14 different systems of supply that we studied, two (both in rural Kenya) had successfully recruited women in supply, with the result that people in the villages (also men) said that their view upon women had changed. For example, one man told us: 'I did not believe in this project. I could not even believe that the women would go to India and become engineers... but later I realised that even women can do this, and the work has been going on up to now.” Hence, the way electricity was provided appeared to be changing gender norms, heightening the expectations of what women can do.
In other study sites (in Nepal and India), discriminating norms were not overcome by inviting women to take part in electricity supply. On the contrary, it may seem as if failed attempts to involve women served to strengthen inequality and further reduce the trust in women's capabilities. Both successful and failed attempts to include women initially met with local resistance. The key factors that made the difference was that the successful initiatives insisted on obtaining gender balance among staff (or solely recruiting women) and made efforts over time to ensure that the women succeeded in their jobs. Importantly, the successful projects ensured appropriate training, kept an eye to the women staff's needs and provided long-term support. 'In return' - and because the women were said to be committed, flexible and trustful service providers - the viability of the systems of provision was said to increase.
It was also an important finding that only four out of the 14 systems of supply had in fact attempted to recruit women. Most of the interventions had followed a conventional, so-called 'gender blind' approach, which had the effect that only men got jobs in the industry on the local level. In this respect, the male biased electricity initiatives increased the gender gap in terms of income and prestige.
Empowerment through appliances - a slower pathway
Another possible path to reducing discrimination against women are the potential effects of using electric light, appliances and mobile phones. To understand this aspect we conducted 245 qualitative interviews, 28 focus group discussions and 642 household survey interviews in total in the three study countries.
The shift to electric light and phone charging at home has contributed to reducing the time for walking to get access to these basic services. This is an important issue if you otherwise would have had to walk 4 kilometres to inform your acquaintance that one of your goats has a problem. Or try to rehearse your studies in the evening. These are incremental and important steps towards living a more convenient life, and here we see that all household members gain relatively equally. Rural Kenya (Homa Bay County) is a possible exception. Here, more women than men made money transfers through their mobile, which is very important to their small businesses.
The trust in appliances as a key feature to ease women's workload has not (yet) materialised in the study areas. This is obviously connected to the high level of poverty and lack of infrastructure such as piped water in the houses. But we also saw that women often had less power to decide on the purchasing of household devices, which partly derives from their lower level of income, but also on traditional norms regarding what women and men are expected to own and control. We therefore did an in-depth study of the appliances gendered connotations and saw that most of the power intensive items (machines) had been decided on and were controlled by men. One exception was found in Nepal, where 23% of households with electricity access kept a rice cooker. Women had often decided on the purchase and were the most common users of rice cookers. We think that an important reason for the Nepali women's relatively high degree of agency (compared with for example people in the Indian sites) was that many men migrate abroad, leaving women with more power to decide. Other factors could also come into play, for example, the rice cooker in Nepal is not perceived to change the taste of the food in a significant way.
Electrification of public services: missed opportunity
Throughout our study sites, it was striking how rarely electricity was being used to enhance the quality of public services such as health clinics, water systems and schools. Either, the supply had once been provided (e.g. through grid or solar home systems) but was no longer working, or the unit had never received electricity. In particular, water services had rarely been targeted for electrification. This lack of electricity for public use severely hinder improvements in quality, and this effect is experienced by women in particular, who tend to use these services mostly. As to schools in Kenya, schools were said to be a vital condition for running boarding facilities. We have documentation from one cohort in a school (Class 8) that such boarding services particularly helped girls improve their school results (exams) in particular. An explanation for these improved results for girls is that when they stay in boarding schools they do less housework. An additional benefit of boarding is that both girls and boys reduce the risk of violence when walking to school, which ca 10 % sadly do normally.
What can be done to enhance women's empowerment?
Once a person has become habituated with using electricity's services in daily life, it is hard to imagine convenient living without electricity. Our research has shown that it does not only matter that electricity is provided - but how it is provided. The first step is to realise that women and men (and various groups of women and men) have different social positions and needs. With this in mind, gender equality through electricity can be enhanced by:
- Examine how overall goals for gender equality can be more effectively realised through changes in regulations for subscriptions (e.g. advising electricians/installers to include lights in rooms that are important to women such as the kitchen, making it possible to obtain access for residents who are not formally registered as the owner of a house)
- Make electricity access affordable to the poorest segments of the population
- Make electricity provision reliable
- Make appliances that women in a given context need available and affordable
- Train and recruit women in supply and invest in their enduring participation, while expecting to meet initial resistance from community members
- Invest in functioning electricity supply in public services in rural areas
It has been a great adventure to work with these vital issues for four years - hoping some of our findings will be of inspiration to other researchers. We are also happy to share our interview tools with other researchers on request.
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The research was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) through the Energy and Gender Research Programme, coordinated by ENERGIA International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy, the Netherlands.