Leveraging the energy transition for gender-equitable growth in rural livelihoods

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By Neha Durga, Garima Taneja and Shrishti Mishra

Agriculture in India contributes close to 20% of GDP and employs 44% of the workforce. Of these agricultural workers, 55% are women, and this percentage is likely to increase as women have fewer opportunities than men to find non-farm jobs. On top of that, women face significantly more barriers and constraints in accessing natural resources such as water and land because – despite significant legal and social efforts – the land rights of women are not widely acknowledged.

Women also find it difficult to access credit, and knowledge about new technologies that could improve their labor productivity. In fact, the structural barriers they face in adopting any innovation which has the potential to improve their wellbeing is significantly greater than that for men. The same is true for access to energy. Women are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of lack of affordable energy – not just in their kitchens but on their farms as well. Even if they do manage to access electricity, they still have significantly fewer options to increase their income.

In the context of a global transition towards clean energy, there are opportunities for delivering carbon-neutral solutions that provide gender-equitable benefits. But at the same time, there is evidence to show that the adoption of clean fuels, or using green energy for farm and non-farm activities, does not improve gender equity but simply shifts many inequities. Green or low-carbon energy systems may not be any fairer, or more inclusive, than the systems they replace – with benefits distributed along the gender and social lines as before.

Ownership and management of energy assets is the most popular way of including women in the energy arena, but this is seldom enough. A deeper engagement is needed to deliver results – as the socio-political nature of our energy transition, if not dealt with sensitively and smartly, will simply reinforce structural inequities.

What can be done?

Every new game provides an opportunity to rewrite the rules. Energy transition can be that game, only if we can write the rules quickly. The existing power asymmetries related to access and resource distribution must be recognized and addressed early on while designing rules. For instance, designing products, business models, supply chains, and maintenance and after sale support – in fact the whole market development and expansion strategy of green energy systems. Given that in India, most clean energy options are still state driven, national policy can play a significant role in making the country’s energy transition gender sensitive. Otherwise, the same structural inequalities will inevitably be transferred over into the new energy paradigms, and gender gap might even worsen further.

Towards gender-equitable growth

In a study that forms part of the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, we looked at the linkages between energy and gender in India. We carried out a comprehensive review of literature and identified opportunities, at micro, meso and macro levels, for leveraging an energy transition to achieve gender-equitable growth in rural areas. Micro level is targeted at individual women at the household level. Meso level is targeted at local institutions such as functional groups, markets or geographically in one or more villages or blocks. The macro level is targeted at policy level where formal rule making happens.

At the micro level

At this level, we identified that women can use improved energy systems as tools to improve their health, labor productivity and livelihoods – thereby impacting their physical and economic well-being. Building their capacities and capabilities would enable them to access, understand and utilize the technology needed to improve their agency at the household level.

It is also expected that new knowledge and skills would improve women’s health outcomes and bargaining power. But learning from experience so far, we concluded that social engineering in designing and implementing micro interventions should be mainstreamed, with technological improvements as an incidental outcome, and not vice versa.

At the meso level

At this level, we identified women as entrepreneurs of energy systems operating in different local institutional set ups like villages or higher-level groups and markets. The opportunities for delivering gendered benefits are two-fold at this level: first, building inclusive local and equitable institutions such as irrigation service markets, and supporting functional groups such as irrigation, financial savings, and water and land management committees, to become more inclusive; and second, building the capacities of women to become entrepreneurs or committee members to effectively participate in these local institutions.

There is substantial evidence that the number of women, or their proportional strength in any institution or community-level group, impacts their ability to participate. Hence, it is essential that they become members of such groups. But there is also evidence that this kind of engagement, to improve women’s employability and social agency, also increases their workload. This is where carefully designed techno-institutional models play a role. These models should reduce the transactional costs for participating women, but will only do so if they are contextually designed.

Effectiveness rather than scalability is the objective of these models. However, it is desirable if the models are also found to be scalable. A good example is the entrepreneurship model of J-WIRES  (JEEViKA Women Initiative Renewable Energy and Solution), an intervention by the Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society in which women entrepreneurs are supported to own and operate village/district-level shops selling new energy products such as solar lamps, LEDs and solar fans.

At the macro level

At this level, the objective is to converge policy instruments and schemes for mainstreaming gender equity with otherwise “gender-agnostic” policies. These policies include those relating not only to energy but also to irrigation, waste lands and wetlands, which play a definitive role in women’s daily lives and can contribute to their agency.

Currently in India, the Ministry of Women and Child Development supports many schemes that build women’s capacity for accessing better employment. However, often the scheme beneficiaries are limited by the budget and objectives of that ministry. If opportunities are found in other ministries, where women’s empowerment is not an obvious outcome but can be made one by making the policy instruments and deliverables more inclusive, then scaling of gendered benefits can be achieved. Through the NEXUS Gains Initiative, we are trying to find such convergence opportunities – so that gender equity can be a cross-cutting objective across different policy instruments.

Bihari, Bengali and Nepali women discuss farming techniques by a solar water pump in Madhubani, Bihar, India. Photo: Andrew Reckers/IWMI.

Foucault identified one’s control over knowledge, body and discourse as some of the key sources of power in society. He suggested that power is not held by particular institutions or individuals but is pervasive and distributed throughout society. Any technological change which can improve control over any of the three elements, holds the potential to redistribute power, improve gender equality and equity. We are trying to use clean energy as a tool for doing so by identifying opportunities which are not obvious.

Neha Durga is a Researcher at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI); Garima Taneja is a Research Officer at IWMI; and Shrishti Mishra is a Consultant for IWMI.

This work was carried out under the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, which is grateful for the support of CGIAR Trust Fund contributors: www.cgiar.org/funders


Header image: A farm worker uses water from a solar water pump on an 80-acre land holding in Jagadhri, India. Photo by Prashanth Viswanathan/CCAFS.

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