This Mother’s Day was more than flowers for a stirring crowd at the Denver Convention Center during WREF 2012. With more attendees than seating, the full-day workshop “Engaging Women in Clean Energy Solutions” began as game of musical chairs (with real music by Sue Blessing.)
Dr. Barbara Farhar, the workshop’s Chair, opened with a moving reminder that Mothers’ Day began as a protest against the carnage of the Civil War. Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies … our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience,” and proposed that women gather“… to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.” Ms. Howe, speaking in a day when women had as little voice in this country as they still do in developing places, would have been glad to hear her expression of the women’s centrality to development so reflected by the work presented today.
Rural solar electrification is the perfect Mother’s Day topic, as one of its most direct benefits is the safe delivery of babies in off-grid areas of the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, a woman has a 1 in 22 chance of dying from complications of pregnancy. In response, We Care Solar founder Dr Laura Stachel and Hal Aronson developed and distributed the “Solar Suitcase,” a modular solar power station integrating lights and outlets tailored to the needs of a clinic. They found that to make an operating room safe required only 15W of power, and observed a decrease in maternal mortality of 70%. Since maternity wards are customarily a woman’s domain, We Care Solar and their networks recruit and train women in the use and promotion of the Solar Suitcase.
Solar electrification has many other benefits in areas where kerosene is the only source of light when the sun goes down. Kerosene is expensive, dangerous and emits toxic fumes. With solar lights, children can safely study for school after the day’s work, a disproportionate share of which often falls on girls. Elephant Energy and its partners develop and distribute solar lights, and promote their sale through existing mercantile networks in Africa as well as on the home front, in the open spaces of the Navajo Reservation.
Clean cookstoves are another frontier where women are the chief adopters and promoters. “Cooking [in Africa] is not the pleasure it is here,” says Nozipho Mabebe Wright, of ENERGIA Africa. Biomass burning in the enclosure of the home kills up to 2 million people per year — mostly women and children – inflicting cataracts, respiratory diseases, and pneumonia. Wright tells of a World Bank-endorsed program to introduce clean, efficient cookstoves, and Susan Kinne, of Grupo Fenix in Nicaragua, shows how international designers collaborate with local craftsmen to create stoves and fuel from local materials. Clean cookstoves eliminate the treks women make (up to six hours a day) to receding forests, and the greenhouse gases released by burning those forests. In a policy environment that favors pouring money into education, Wright and a network of women in Africa and Asia advocate for funding for first needs – a clean and healthy home environment.
This year’s WREF takes place on the verge of June’s “Rio +20” United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, where 60,000 people are expected to converge in a sequel to the groundbreaking conference of 20 years ago. Gail Karlsson, ENERGIA’s Senior Policy Advisor, will be there, but like many at this workshop, her hopes are dampened by frustration with the political allergy to clean energy and sustainability that currently keeps it in the realm of science fiction. “I never could imagine that sustainable energy and climate change could become so political,” she says. Without political progress on clean energy, all the engineering genius in the world, including that of her two sons, (one at Columbia and one at MIT), cannot make a dent.
It seems that these are not women’s issues — they are everyone’s. Everyone has a mother, and is here because they were safely born. Everyone needs clean air, clean water, and food. Everyone needs a livelihood and to be reared in enough prosperity to support their development, education and dreams. Men (and the boys who will become men) benefit as much as women do from the initiatives presented today. If these initiatives can make themselves understood as the needs of whole families, they will not fall on deaf ears. And if clean energy can be understood as a key component of global development – the reduction of poverty and avoidance of war over resources – then it may attract the political eye.
“If we ignore women, we are limping [on one leg],” said Dr. Abdulaziz Altwaijri, Director General of ISESCO, which represents development interests in the Islamic world. He spoke to a crowd of both women and men. The level of energy in this room brightened the hopes of all of us who want to see the benefits of clean technology extended to the developing world (even if we did have to sneak out to call our mothers.)