On 12th May 2021, parliamentarians from Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda and Zimbabwe gathered for a virtual parliamentary roundtable to discuss rural electrification and the role of gender in energy access in Africa. The roundtable was hosted by the Climate Parliament, co-organised with UNIDO and co-sponsored by the Pan-African Parliament.
Dr Magi Matinga, sustainability expert and technical advisor at ENERGIA, an international network of organisations and professionals working toward equal and equitable access to sustainable energy, outlined the gender disparities in energy access across Africa. Recent research shows that although energy access is improving in most countries, interventions do not consider the structural realities of the lives of women, with most favouring traditionally male-dominated industries such as welding and carpentry. In many rural communities, women still walk hours each day to manually collect water and firewood for cooking, leaving very little time for other productive activities, where women would be able to generate income and support their families in a much safer and more profitable way.
Members of Parliament shared stories of success and of failure with regards to these issues across their constituencies. A lack of support in Parliament when gender issues are raised still hampers progress. Participants agreed that there needs to be a deliberate effort from governments to address the needs and realities of women, particularly in budget discussions. In Rwanda, every budget must include a gender aspect to be debated in Parliament. In many countries, gender issues are still met with scorn by male parliamentarians. It was agreed that education is crucial: girls and boys must be taught equal skills from a young age, so that they can take up the same challenges together.
Many noted the issue of the cost of electricity in rural areas, where a lack of demand drives prices of renewable electricity up. Clean cooking was discussed as a way to increase demand and make energy sources such as solar through mini-grids more viable.
Programmes in many countries are making a difference. In Mauritius in 2017, 98% of the population had access to electricity, and this access was equal for both men and women. This has greatly improved the lives of the entire population in terms of health, education and security. In Kenya, a training programme to engage women in technical and managerial roles in the energy sector has proved very successful. Similarly, in Somalia, programmes that have supported women recruitment in the energy sector by providing the necessary safety gear, have made an impact. In Malawi, women’s groups have been crucial to sustaining clean cooking markets. In Nepal and Rwanda, obligations for inclusion of women and other marginalised groups are embedded in legislation. Women are supported and encouraged to take up leadership positions. These programmes have a compounding effect as women and girls are able to see themselves reflected in others. Even though girls are getting more and more opportunities to learn technical skills, many are still afraid to take this risk as these skills are and always have been predominantly a male domain. Girls and women need to see that it is possible for someone just like them to change the scope of education, and break down the barriers around them.
Gender equality is a societal issue, it impacts women and men at all stages of life. Bringing women into the energy debate brings benefits for the whole society in terms of equality, productivity and profitability, and must be a priority for legislators.