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Empowering women: Voices from Africa, heard in New York

By Muna Eltahir On 24.03.2017 EnergyPovertyEnvironmentBlog

The Commission on the Status of Women is an annual global conference, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. It hosts representatives of Member States, UN entities, and NGOs from all regions of the world presents and actively interacts with different core sessions and side events. The sixty first CSW took place from 13 to 24 March 2017, under the theme; “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.”

Practical Action participated via a side event we organised entitled “Empowering Women as Change Agents in Sustaining Energy Value Chains.” We invited three panellists from variety of backgrounds, Solar Sister, Smiling Though Light, Energy Research Institute of Sudan and also we reflected our experiences in East Africa and Sudan country offices.

I, as Country Director of our Sudan Office, talked about Practical Action’s work in general and reflected on the impact of the Low Smoke Stove program in Sudan, how the program empowered the Darfurian women; reduced smoke emissions, improved women health through reduction of indoor pollution, saved women time, protected them against violence and increased income, create space of income generating activities.

“Women have the social networks that can help to drive behaviours change, break customs and convince others to adopt new energy options” said Lydia Muchiri, the Senior Gender & Energy Advisor, Practical Action East Africa. Lydia was the keynote speaker in Practical Action’s side event in the CSW61. In her presentation, Lydia emphasised the importance of real political will to empower women economically through supporting women’s energy initiatives.

Lydia stressed the importance of financial access to enable empowerment for women. She stated “Models that ease women’s access to funds should be supported by decision makers at the highest levels”. She believed that without female involvement in energy value chains, the very ambitious targets set in the SDGs will not be met in the near future.

Lydia correctly defined women as agents of change and entrepreneurs, adding “Women have the social networks that can help to drive behaviour change, break customs and convince others to adopt new energy options”. Both Lydia and I believe that these stories must continue being told in spaces like CSW; at national, international and local levels.

“Invest in women = invest in the future” said Mariama Kamara, Founder & Director of Smiling Through Light for clean, reliable and sustainable energy in Sierra Leone. Mariama was one of our invited speakers in our CSW session. She started her speech sharing a touching personal story of living in an area went through civil war and Ebola disease break out throughout her childhood. After developing academic and professional experience in United Kingdom, Mariama returned home with an aim of making positive change in women’s lives and she became a popular change agent in Sierra Leone. Mariama called for change saying: “take that step – be the change you want to see”.

Smiling Through Light focuses on the need to integrated people into solutions across the energy value chain to ensure that products meet their needs and uses.

Mariama emphasised women’s collective actions, knowledge and empowerment to build environmentally sustainable pathways. She discussed the decentralised renewable energy systems in particular as a great space for women’s empowerment. Based on her close interaction with women in slums and rural areas at local levels, Mariama proved that the empowered women are more likely to participate in decision making and involve in the value chains (given a voice). Women in Smiling Through Light energy projects are present along the value chain; in production, transportation, distribution, conversion, end use (job creation, business opportunities, and impacts).

“Women power from the board room to the village” said Neha Misra, Co-Founder and Chief Collaboration Officer of Solar Sister. Neha, who shared her professional experience, urged the participants to economically empower women across the sustainable energy value chains to create ‘woman power from the board room to the village’. She highlighted the investment in local female leadership. Solar Sister’s entrepreneurs come from rural areas and diverse demographic spanning smallholder farmers, teachers, health workers and basket weavers.

Solar Sister entrepreneurs gain access to solar and clean cooking solutions, training, and marketing support to launch their own businesses in forms of life transforming solar lighting, phone charging, multi-point solar solutions, and clean cook stoves to support rural households, health centres, small businesses and educational institutions.

Neha shared evidence form academic independent research that has highlighted the success of Solar Sister in women empowerment, income raising and enabling safer communities through access to clean energy. The positive results have also showed that 9 out of 10 Solar Sister’s children use solar lights to study and $200 is saved annually from reduced spending on kerosene, fuel wood, phone charging. However, advocacy, women’s investments, building technical capacities and creating motivating research evidences are all needed for addressing rural women energy poverty, and unequally positioning in clean energy value chains.

“Household energy is not about ‘consumerism’, it is an income generating and opportunity for women participation and empowerment” said Dr Sawsan Sanhory, Head of Technology Development and Dissemination Department, Energy Research Centre. Sawsan was an invited contributor from Sudan – who conducted her PhD research in “The impact of gender roles in energy uses”. She shared her accumulated knowledge about the household energy situation in Sudan (fuel uses for cooking and electricity). She emphasised that there is a lack of gender mainstreamed energy in national plans as well as influencing policies.

Dr Sanhory emphasised that energy must be integrated across other sectors (ie education). She also added that awareness raising and training on the alternative sources of energy are needed for women. “Household energy is not about ‘consumerism’, it is an income generating and opportunity for women participation and empowerment” said Sawsan. Thus, there is a critical need to change the mind-set of policy makers regarding women and energy issues. There is also a need to consider different contexts in order to select the best interventions, and this highlights the importance of participation of local communities and actors in development process.

Lastly, Lydia called for different kinds of support to generate evidence and convince decision-makers, whether in terms of pilot projects or research, or simply by sharing women’s inspiring success stories (with their own voices).

The side even was a great success, there was a good attendance and the audience asked many questions and comments. Each question/comment was addressed by at least two panellists. We now need to turn these words into even greater action!

Muna Eltahir: Country Director, Practical Action Sudan