No Woman Left Behind: Shedding Light On Gender Equity in India’s Low-Carbon Transition

Despite near universal access to electricity, gendered inequities in electricity usage hinder India’s progress on sustainable development goals. As energy policy focuses on renewable energy, socio-cultural shifts must also be prioritised to improve women’s agency over electricity use.

Access to electricity presents both developmental and climate challenges for India: universal electrification is essential for sustainable development, but rapid growth in energy consumption driven by thermal power is likely to undermine progress on mitigation goals. As India approaches its goal of universal access to electricity and is projected to experience more significant growth in energy consumption than that of any other country in the world, energy policy must not only focus on driving a low carbon transition for all households, but also address unresolved gender inequities that are often overlooked.

Electrification and energy policies have considerable impact on women, especially in rural areas. Despite electricity provision, unequal power dynamics limit women’s agency over electricity consumption, hindering the considerable benefits electrification  can have given women’s role in the household. However, to achieve these positive outcomes for women, energy access policies must take into account gendered intra-household power dynamics. It is clear that while electrification is necessary to achieve empowerment and sustainable development for the population, alone it is not sufficient.

Gendered dimensions of electricity access

Electrification has great potential to benefit girls and women: globally, literature shows that reliable access to lighting has implications for women’s economic empowerment – with more hours in the day where women can conduct household work (given that household work is socially constructed as women’s work). This in turn gives women more ability to enter the labour market and earn an income. Girls also greatly benefit from increased lighting, with more hours to study. For middle- and upper-class households, electrification facilitates the usage of appliances and clean cooking technologies, with broad health benefits and the ability to reduce women’s total unpaid workload. Literature also shows that there are broader social benefits for women, where access to information through television can shape social norms through gender-positive content.

However, a study in the journal Nature Sustainability that focused on Indian households discovered that despite electricity access, benefits from electrification were mired in intra-household gender politics and norms. First, across socio-economic strata, electrified households had an average of three to five fans and three to six light bulbs; yet, less than 40% of households installed bulbs in the kitchen and only a mere 13% installed a kitchen fan. This deficiency in kitchen appliances, where women are more likely to spend time, underscores a notable gender disparity in women’s agency over electricity use and choices. Second, when women benefit from electrification, it is typically through appliances that ease household chores, rather than access to entertainment or information via media like television. This perpetuates traditional gender roles where women are expected to handle unpaid, domestic work. Finally, access to electricity does not alter prevailing social dynamics: the study found that female respondents expressed sentiments such as “I don’t use the fan, that is for my children and husband”.

It’s clear that the electrification of households alone is not enough to empower females. The transition to a low-carbon society, where India’s electricity usage is powered by cleaner sources of energy, must focus on challenging patriarchal norms to achieve the dual goals of energy access and gender equality.  

How can energy policy address this? 

Indian women share a mutually beneficial relationship with renewable energy (RE), with a majority of early adopters of RE being women, and RE being particularly beneficial to underprivileged women. For instance, technology harnessing decentralised renewable energy (DRE), which includes rooftop solar, is allowing women to mechanise operations like sewing and milking and generate supplementary income. There is a higher concentration of women who own and/or work in rooftop solar than in the rest of the energy sector. Obviously, this 11% representation is far from ideal: it simply indicates that solar energy, because of its decentralised, citizen-owned nature,  is less deeply inequitable than other energy sources. 

Many women-owned small businesses – whether solar-powered or not – are funded by microloans. Many microfinance organisations target women, with the aim of improving both women’s outcomes as well as those of the entire household. However, such microloans are far from guaranteed to improve women’s outcomes. In this sense, microfinance constitutes another example of a technological/financial system that initially generated much enthusiasm as a panacea for gender inequity – the lesson being that any technology needs to be carefully situated within sociocultural contexts, and reinforced by policy, in order to actually achieve complex social goals like gender equity. 

Electrification itself – whether solar-powered or otherwise – is not sufficient to improve women’s lives. Often, electrification can even increase the burden on women to conform to existing patriarchal norms. For instance, in Reshamgaon, Jharkhand, the Village Electrification Project found the inefficacy of the approach that repressive gender norms and “the cult of domesticity” was something women had to overcome individually. The researchers noted the need for “formal political and legal support”  to help women challenge traditional gender norms in their communities.

The government seems to recognise the need for policy action to ensure that investments in RE benefit women. For instance, the government recognises female leaders in the RE space, has organised conferences on this topic, and has put together a committee to promote policies favouring women in RE. This committee aims both to involve women in the sustainability goals of RE, and to use RE to empower women financially and socially. 

Such policies represent steps in the right direction, but we have a long way to go to ensure that India’s massive investment in RE simultaneously achieves the goals of gender equity and sustainable energy. Technological and financial solutions – whether electrification, microfinance, or solar power – are a necessary part of sustainable and equitable development, but they are not sufficient: they need ongoing policy support and sociocultural reform.

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