| Boiling Point No. 27 - April 1992 |
Implications for the Nutrition and Health of Women and Children
By Jamuna Ramakrishna, freelance consultant
For that major proportion of the human population that spends most of its waking hours struggling to meet the basic need for food, water and fuel, a stove that cooks faster and saves fuel can be a boon. The potential reduction in drudgery and improvement in nutrition and health are of particular significance for women and children.
Time: Putting It To Better Uses
A stove that cooks faster means time released for activities other than cooking. In addition, some improved stoves (ICs) require less supervision of the fire. This "freed" time also becomes available to the cook to use as she wishes. The amount of time that is "saved" or "freed" will vary depending on the stove and the operator. Usually, evaluation surveys of IC programmes simply record that users say that cooking takes less time with the new stove than the old stove (Ramakrishna, 1991).
This time may be put to any number of uses. Where basic survival activities occupy much of the day, saved time and effort can result in a much-needed reduction in mental and physical stress. Even if the IC only requires a lesser degree of the cook's attention, this reprieve can lighten her load of multiple tasks (e.g - child care, food preparation, fuel preparation, stove supervision, etc.).
Seen in this light, it does not really matter what the cook does with the saved or freed time. She might rest, thereby improving her own health and contributing to the welfare of the family; she might spend that time with her children or other family members; she might perform agriculture related activities; she might work at some household industry; she may attend to other domestic chores; she may even spend the time cooking more meals. In the post-industrial world, the raison d'etre of time-saving devices is never questioned. It is always assumed that there are plenty of useful activities to occupy saved time. The same assumption can be applied to the world of ICs with far greater justification.
Health: Improving the Household Environment
Less time spent cooking may have the additional benefit of reducing the cook's exposure to smoke. (Of course, if the IC is "smokeless" or removes smoke from the cook's breathing zone, then this is not a concern). There is enough evidence to suggest that exposure to smoke from biomass-burning cookstoves is a risk factor for chronic lung disease in adults, particularly women, and acute respiratory disease in children (Chen et al., 1990; Smith, 1991). Further, cooks often complain of the short-term effects of smoke exposure, namely, coughing, eye irritation, and headaches (Ramakrishna, 1988). In poorly ventilated kitchens, the concentrations of smoke can be quite high (Ramakrishna et al., 1989; Boiling Point April 1991 Special Edition); such conditions are not exactly conducive to good health. Concern is called for particularly as the population at risk includes pregnant and ill nourished women, and children.
ICs may also contribute to improved health in another way. Some ICs can accommodate multiple cooking pots. This feature may be utilised to heat water for bathing and cleaning. Sanitation and hygiene may thus be boosted without any additional outlay of household resources.
Fuel: Maximising Available Resources
An IC that uses less fuel can improve household welfare appreciably. If cooking fuel is normally collected, there will be a reduction in the time and labour needed for collection. Where fuel is cheap and abundant, this may not amount to a significant savings, but elsewhere the savings can be considerable. In fact, Skar (1982) noted that there was a tradeoff between time spent on gathering fuel and that spent in cooking in high-altitude Peruvian villages.
The household member assigned the task of procuring fuel may be different in different societies, although women often bear the main burden. This diversion of their labour prevents them from participating in more productive and less arduous activities. Children may be recruited where fuel scarcity is acute. A recent study in Pakistan noted, for instance, that women collected fuel in households that described their fuelwood supplies as "inadequate" but both women and children are far more likely to be collectors when supplies are "difficult" (Dove, 1991). Under such circumstances, the children may be unable to attend school or their studies may suffer.
If, on the other hand, cooking fuel is bought, the savings will be monetary. The magnitude of the savings will, once again, vary geographically. In urban Sri Lanka, 10% of a person's salary might go toward meeting fuelwood requirements (Amarasekera, 1989). While this expenditure is not insignificant, the scale and importance of potential savings may be much greater in other instances. Briscoe (1979) described such a situation in a Bangladeshi village where landless families at the bottom of the economic and social ladder are faced with the choice of buying fuelwood or food during the monsoon. In less stark circumstances, the money saved may be used to buy more food.
The saved resources, whether labour, fuel, or money, can be used for other tasks beneficial to household welfare. In the case of saved fuel, two possible alternatives come readily to mind: boiling drinking water or preparing animal fodder.
Food: Improving Quality and Quantity
Fuel savings may strengthen the nutritional status of an IC user-population, particularly where fuel shortages are felt. This may occur in several ways more meals may be cooked; more dishes may be prepared; more nutritious food may be eaten; foods may be cooked properly.
Because of fuel shortages, people may eat leftover food rather than prepare a full meal, as has been reported from a north Indian village (Dasgupta & Maiti, 1986). Under more extreme conditions, they may change their diets, and begin to eat less nutritious but more rapidly cooked foods (Agarwal, 1986). Protein-rich foods may be prepared less frequency because they take longer to cook. Inadequately cooked food is not only difficult to digest, it may be hazardous to health. For example, if gari (cassava) is not cooked long enough, it cannot be preserved well and contains residues of cyanhydric acid (Gattegno, 1989).
Any nutritional increments that can be gained will be especially beneficial to women (particularly those who are pregnant or lactating) and to children. This added advantage accrues because food is "distributed in accordance with status and position of an individual rather than according to nutritional requirement" (Key, 1987). This statement was made with reference to India but discrepancies in intrahousehold food distribution are not limited to a single culture. As Agarwal (1986) observes, "women face more severe nutritional consequences from fuel shortages than men because of the biases against them in the distribution of food within the family. The extra energy expended by women of poor households to collect fuel is also unlikely to be made up in most cases by the required higher consumption of food." Many more do hard physical work and need more calories.
In weighing the bencfits accruing from the fuel and time saving features of ICs, it is important to remember that many people face the dual problems of fuel shortage and food scarcity. Often, food insecurity is the more pressing
issue (Dasgupta & Maita, 1986). Severe environmental degradation may lead to situations where food aid is available but cooking fuel is not (Douglas, 1982). Although more frequently, the opposite occurs: people have no food to cook. The point, though, is that the section of the population most vulnerable to food scarcity and fuel shortage is often one and the same. IC programmes operating in such circumstances need to be cognisant of this and address both problems simultaneously.
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