| Boiling Point No. 27 - April 1992 |
by Anne Holderness Sefu, freelance consultant, formerly Project Co-ordinator of Morogoro Fuelwood Stove Project, Tanzania
The links between women and stoves differ from those between men and stoves for both cultural and biological reasons. The connection between stoves and children is partly to do with women's biological role in childbearing. At the same time in many societies, particularly in Africa, the jobs of food preparation and fuel collection have been allocated according to cultural norms.
Such cultural practices may also vary over time: what is considered normal by one generation may be considered old-fashioned by the succeeding generation, for example a taboo on men cooking. Obviously it is essential to find out about the current accepted practices in a particular community when dealing with any new technology, but not to assume these cannot be changed if some members of the community are in favour.
The biological role of women in child-bearing will not, of course, change. What can change in this respect, however, is the amount of heavy, physical work women perform during their pregnancies. This has been shown by UNICEF and others to seriously affect women's own health and life-expectancy as well as that of their children, before and after birth. Also the fact that children sometimes have to go without a meal for long periods has far-reaching effects on their health. In many cases this is due to their mother's lack of time, or lack of fuel, rather than a lack of actual food. Therefore, an important point for stove-workers to bear in mind is whether an intervention in the use or production of stoves - particularly the so called "self-made", ie. user-made variety - is likely to lead to additional unpaid work for women in the short-term, even if it might eventually lead to a saving in labour, fuel and time in the long-term.
The effect of women's already exhausting daily schedule has sometimes been overlooked in the past by stove workers, including our own project in Morogoro, Tanzania. In fact, this offers at least a partial explanation for the failure of fixed mud stoves to catch on in a number of areas. Initially, while inputs from projects were plentiful, these stoves seemed to have a high rate of acceptance. However, they have not always continued into a second generation when project attention has decreased. One example of this is seen in villages in Tanzania with trainees of the Morogoro Fuelwood Stove Project. Another is in Senegal. Both in Morogoro and Dakar project workers have decided to concentrate their resources on artisan-produced portable stoves rather than on the fixed ones. At the district hospital in Ifakara, in the Morogoro Region, medical personnel of the Swiss Tropical Institute Field Laboratory saw a direct link between women's work load, the collection of fuelwood and the high incidence of malnutrition among young children, particularly during the heavy rice-cultivation and harvesting periods.
They therefore sponsored training for selected trainees in making fixed, mud, firewood stoves for use in rural areas. The irony was that these stoves did not catch on to any significant extent, whereas charcoal stove production, initiated by the three women producers themselves rather than the medical personnel, met with great demand among the relatively well-off townsfolk. The reasons may be attributed to the difference in education levels, the scattered population, choice of trainees, lack of perceived shortage of firewood and the lack of free time for potential users to experiment with unfamiliar stoves.
Another important link between women's welfare and stoves arises because women are actual or potential stove producers as well as stove users. Women are increasingly becoming responsible for providing items such as food, clothing and education, not only in female-headed households, but also in homes where a man is present. Research has shown that, contrary to widely-held assumptions, often income and expenditure are handled separately by the husband and his wife or wives. An increase in a man's income may well go towards the acquisition of a bicycle or radio, or greater beer consumption, while a woman's income usually goes towards improving the standard of living of the family as a whole. So efforts should be made in order to prevent women being squeezed out of stove production when it becomes a more lucrative business.
Taking an overview of these issues concerning women, children and stoves, a number of contradictions seem to emerge. On the one hand there is often a shortage of fuel and constraints on women's time and energy used in fuel collection and cooking; on the other hand women often need to earn income and may also wish for a more convenient and efficient stove. At the same time, in rural areas where burdens on women are very arduous, it is often more difficult to identify and introduce new, appropriate technology than in towns. I believe being aware of these issues is a good starting point to finding appropriate solutions, approaching each situation anew.