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close this book Energy research in developing countries
close this folder Volume 9: Human energy
View the document The real rural energy crisis: women's time
View the document Human energetics

The real rural energy crisis: women's time

Irene Tinker



Over the past decade, rural needs for energy have been equated with fuel needs alone. The mechanical or muscular energy used to produce and process crops and to survive has not been given due attention. When the time and human effort expended are analyzed, it becomes apparent that the main barrier to rural development is the scarcity of women's time.


Women's work in household and subsistence production is largely invisible to economic planners who focus on economic activity in the modern sector. Census statistics undervalue women's work in the agricultural and informal sectors. Basic survival tasks are defined as traditional household activities and are left out of economic tabulations because modernization is expected to eliminate them.

Data on women's economic roles have shown that poor women work more hours than men, the economic contributions of women (both monetary and nonmonetary) are absolutely essential to the survival of poor families, women's income (unlike men's) generally goes entirely to household needs, and water carrying and food processing are more sex-typed than fuel collection.

Time allocation research in villages in four different countries shows that women work 2-3 h more per day than men, the time spent fetching water is greater than the time needed for fuel collection, and food processing is by far the most time-consuming survival activity for women. Rural women are constrained by the inflexibility of their responsibilities to provide necessities for their families. Women are certainly not underemployed, but they are clearly underproductive.

The crisis in rural energy has been defined as a shortage of fuel and scarcity of firewood. The two solutions offered were to plant more trees and to introduce new stoves that either are more efficient for traditional fuels or use different energy sources. These solutions were not as widely successful as hoped because the problem was not perceived accurately, and the solutions required more time and effort from rural women who are already overworked.

The perception of the problem is gradually changing as patterns of supply and demand for energy are seen as part of the agrarian ecosystem. Firewood collected for cooking is only one small aspect of land degradation and deforestation. The major causes are clearing trees for new homesteads, logging in mountainous areas, overgrazing in Sahelian areas, and commercializing the production of firewood and charcoal to meet expanding urban demand.

There is now growing appreciation for the complex roles of forests and trees in the lives of rural residents. Social forestry programs have been adjusted to plant tree species that meet people's needs for fodder, fuel, fruit, and other edible products. However, reconciling local needs for forest products with commercial requirements for timber, building poles, and bullock cart wheels continues to be a major problem.

Similarly, early assumptions that traditional cooking methods were inefficient and that a single improved mud-stove could dramatically reduce fuel consumption have had to be revised in light of the experience gained in many stove programs. Rural women understand very well the tradeoff between fuel consumption and time saved. They adapt their cooking methods to their daily responsibilities and their families" needs.

Given the demands and conditions of women's lives in poor households, traditional stoves have proven difficult to replace. The requirement for cut wood for many of the new stoves, for example, implies not only more work for women but the need for an axe or other implement.

The idea of a universally applicable technology runs counter to the immense variability in culture, class, and ethnicity. If the unrealistic expectation that improved stoves offer a panacea for rural areas could be set aside, their importance could be seen more clearly. Improved stoves are more important for improving women's health by reducing smoke pollution than for reducing their workload.

The current focus on fuel issues is laudable but insufficient. Much more emphasis needs to be placed on reducing demands for human energy by introducing appropriate mechanical substitutes in ways that do not further impoverish women. Once the central energy problem of women's time is recognized, there may be other ways to address time and fuel constraints. Increased income, for example, will have a more immediate impact on these constraints than improved cooking stoves or new biogas digesters.

If the 2-3 h a day that women spend processing food were reduced, or the distance they walk to fetch water were shortened, then they would have more time to cook more carefully (and thus to conserve fuel) or to earn money to buy improved technology or fuels.

Planners must be alerted to the basic need to provide sufficient income for the poor to buy improved cooking stoves or higher grade fuel. They must recognize that constraints on rural women's time are central to development in general and to energy programs in particular.

For programs to succeed, people must perceive a need for the solution to the problem they address. Rural people in developing countries do not yet consider firewood a major problem. Development programs must involve both sides of the fuel-food equation, which is central to the survival of families in near-subsistence societies.


Suggestions for Further Research

Research is needed on

· New stoves that meet the needs of households in developing countries and reduce the health hazards of smoke for women,

· Cooking methods that consider the health benefits of reduced smoke pollution and the time concerns of rural women in addition to the efficiency of fuel consumption,

· Low-energy food-processing techniques (the pretreatment or partial cooking of traditional grains could reduce the use of energy in the household),

· Alternative technologies for cooking needs (for example, solar heaters and biogas digesters),

· Activities in the informal sector (street foods should be recognized as a vital part of the urban scene rather than treated as an illegal eyesore),

· Microlevel aspects of rural energy to determine villagers' perspectives on how and where energy fits into the rural economy, and

· Gender in forestry projects, at both commercial and subsistence levels (women's traditional knowledge about forests, tree species, and uses of forest products should be better acknowledged and investigated, and more women should be involved as data collectors and extension agents to ensure that women's voices are heard).