Indian Women and Energy

Why the two are inextricably connected

Hinsi Hazda, rushes to finish her daily chores as the sun sets in Tentala, Odisha, India. Like many rural hamlets in India, Hinsi’s village of Tentala is off the power grid, and the only way to see well enough to complete her daily chores is by the light of the sun.

Living in the U.S. now, it’s hard to see my home country on one hand developed, on the other hand very much developing, and plagued by poverty and violence against women. New Delhi, once fondly recalled as my birthplace, is now infamous worldwide for a rape case.

According to some 2011 estimates, there are currently 50 million missing women in India. This gap in males and females can be attributed to a variety of causes, from gendered abortions before the female children are ever born, to infanticides and female brutality after the women are actually brought into the world.

Hinsi’s story brings these two together.  In villages throughout India, the duties of procuring the sources for the energy fall upon the women. They are the ones given the task of gathering wood for their fires, and they are the primary users of their household’s energy. Currently, around 400 million Indians do not have access to electricity. That’s 25 percent more people than currently live in the U.S. altogether.

On a larger scale, India only has the capacity to meet 90% of the population’s energy demand, which has led to the slowing of industrial production, and thus, a major hit to the economy. Moreover, two thirds of the electric sources in India are fossil fuel based, with a whopping 56.65 percent coming from coal.

Kerosene and firewood are also popular sources of heating and power in rural India. Besides being environmentally unfriendly, on a micro-economic scale, this is an extremely expensive and inefficient way for India’s poorest to power their homes. Kerosene is an extremely expensive fuel long-term, and besides being expensive, many health issues are attributed to the use of this fossil fuel.

Many NGOs and multinational organizations have put the two together to create a win-win: targeting women’s energy habits may be a way to help mitigate fossil fuel usage in rural India. Their programs increase the women’s knowledge base and change their energy usage habits to change the distribution of energy sources in the country.

A majority of the programs provide the villages with solar lanterns and solar powered light bulbs as a replacement for kerosene and wood burning. The kerosene and wood burning are a major source of pollution and respiratory disease within the rural households. Calculations on the effectiveness of solar lanterns illustrate that just one solar lantern with a 10-year life reduces 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions and replaces hundreds of gallons of kerosene.

The solar initiative programs are changing the energy structure in India in a variety of ways. Some seek to educate women so they can build and maintain their own solar powered light bulbs and sources. The Indian government, the United Nations Foundation and an NGO called The Social Work and Research Center have implemented these projects all over India. Women are trained to run the energy programs in their villages, and they sell this energy to others in the vicinity of the microgrid. This grants them the ability to independently contribute to the financial requirements of their family.

Other programs, like those of Lighting a Billion Lives and The Self-Employed Women’s Association provide solar lanterns to women, allowing them to start and run their own small businesses.

Empowering Women – Both Economically and with More Power and Light

The solar lanterns initiatives allow women to have lighting at night. This gives them the ability to manufacture goods in their home without infringing on the time they need to spend on domestic duties. They can sell the goods they manufacture at a profit, thereby creating a small-scale matriarch run business. Much like the solar engineers, the solar powered entrepreneurship effectively increases the social and economic capacity of rural Indian women.

The success stories from satisfied women emerge from all over India: villages that have never seen electricity suddenly have power. Women are now given the ability to be economic contributors to their household. They are given technical and entrepreneurial training in a country where gender selective education is a major issue in households.

That is a big step for rural Indian women. These women serve as role models to the youth, showing their daughters and nieces and younger siblings that they too can be scientists and engineers. Green energy gives women in India the ability to enter the market.

In Hinsi’s village of Tentala, women like Dumini Murmu and Arati Mahanta have become entrepreneurs. In the light of the solar lanterns, these women create goods that can be sold to town vendors, adding to the income of their household. Suddenly, these women have the ability to earn substantial income for their families and have greater stature in the community — and to serve as an inspiration to women around them. Hopefully, they will teach Hinsi these skills soon too.

I watch with pride as my homeland ignited, village-by-village, by the shining light of progress.

Listen to Aneri Patel of the U.N. Sustainable Energy for All initiative tell Green Connections Radio™ host Joan Michelson about programs that are bringing both light and economic empowerment – and the increased safety that comes with them – to parts of rural South Asia.

arzooBlog Written by Arzoo Malhotra, Production Assistant & Researcher

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