Electrification has a gender impact

Obtaining access to electricity tends to have a positive effect on the lives of women and girls.

This blog is also published on Science Nordic.

Freed time for women

We have looked at the growing evidence on women’s empowerment through electrification. We also looked at the electricity policies in Kenya, India and Nepal to see if and how they focus on “gender issues” when planning for electricity.

Our first observation is that obtaining access to electricity tends to have a positive effect on the lives of women and girls.It is not fully understood why, but women who have electricity at home spend less time doing physically demanding routine tasks than other women.

The freed time is used in a range of ways. Electrification sometimes facilitates women’s labour participation and their economic productivity at home. Through electricity they also get access to watching television programmes - which in some cases has had the effect of transforming attitudes that discriminate against women, such as reducing acceptance for husbands beating their wives. Access to electricity enhances children’s education in general and girl’s education in particular. Even girls from poor households with electricity gain considerably through higher school enrolment, which nuances the picture that primarily well-off households benefit from electrification.

However, far too little is known about electricity’s effect on women’s decision making power, which is central to our definition of women’s empowerment, captured as the process towards gender equality: women and men’s equal rights; control over resources; and influence on decisions. Some studies show that women’s increased welfare (i.e. reduced drudgery and improved lighting) enhanced their influence on everyday decisions which taken at large can be considered as empowerment. But on the household level, we find no evidence that women gained increased decision-making power in relation to men on matters of major significance such as deciding on whom to marry, or on making large investments. Women who gain employment through electrification are likely to be empowered economically, but without insight into decision-making processes, little is known about the effects on gender relations. The exceptions are cases in which women were given a central role in the supply of electricity. Though also under-researched, there is some evidence that such inclusion leads to changing gender norms and practices in ways that imply empowerment for women.

The explanations for electricity’s effects remain unclear

Our second observation is that the explanations for electricity’s effects remain unclear, and this derives from conceptual ambiguity (e.g. what is ‘empowerment’?) and a lack of contextualised treatment of results. This problem becomes even more obvious when contradictory results are found, for example when electric light is used by children for doing homework in one context but not in another. What explains such differences? And what could be done to enhance electricity’s positive effects in each place? We argue that there is a need for ethnographic studies for understanding the mechanisms that cause electricity’s various effects. The lack of focus on contextual factors and causal explanations hinders aggregation of knowledge in this field. For policy makers, it implies that their knowledge base is limited in terms of what kinds of policies and interventions work most effectively to empower women and girls through electrification.

Most global initiatives and policies are gender blind

Thirdly, our scoping study raises the question to what extent policy has made itself relevant as a tool to promote women’s empowerment thorough electrification. It is interesting that international actors tend to have a strong influence on promoting strategies for women’s empowerment; however, whilst such actors are involved in supporting electrification policy and programmes, the effects of gender mainstreaming efforts are less obvious. Our policy review of global initiatives such as Sustainable Energy for All and national electricity policies in Kenya, India and Nepal reveals that most initiatives and policies are gender blind. Crucial to research, it appears that a lack of evidence of the potential effects of gender initiatives (and let alone the lack of gender sensitive statistics) hinder their further elaboration and realisation.

These insights have fed into the design for the next phase of our research which will focus on the impact of concrete interventions in Kenya, India and Nepal. We definitely look forward to further untangling this complex web in our research in 2016 and 2017!

The research is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) through the Energy and Gender Research Programme which is coordinated by ENERGIA

We would also welcome your comments and feedback on our work, please share them here on Our blog

Tags: Energy and Consumption, Electrification, Gender, Women, Women’s empowerment, Global initiatives By Tanja Winther, Magi, Anjali Saini and Debajit Palit (On behalf of the EFEWEE Team)
Published Mar. 31, 2016 1:55 PM - Last modified Sep. 11, 2019 11:33 AM

The SUM Blog

A blog about development, aid, global health, energy, governance, environmental issues, consumption and sustainability. Here, researchers and students at the Centre for Development and the Environment, UiO, write about research findings and areas we believe need to be given greater priority.