Dina Yazdani, Middle East Program Officer, Mercy Corps, and Tenzin Manell, Senior Technical Advisor, Cash and Livelihoods, Women’s Refugee Commission
The COVID-19 pandemic is a multi-faceted global health crisis with ripple effects felt across humanitarian contexts and sectors. While the negative impacts of COVID-19 on public health, market systems, and food security are clear, there has been a failure to examine the impact of the pandemic on energy access, and in particular for women and girls. COVID-19 affects all aspects of energy access, from value and supply chains to the affordability and use of energy products for cooking, lighting, and power.
There are many ways in which women and girls face higher immediate and long-term risks due to the lack of access to energy resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. To name just a few:
Displaced women and girls and other marginalized groups face higher risks of severe health outcomes from contracting COVID-19. The World Health Organization estimates 20,000 premature deaths every year among displaced persons—primarily women and children—as a result of indoor pollution from cooking with firewood and charcoal. During the COVID-19 crisis displaced women and girls are being exposed to indoor pollution even more, as preparing food for their families with toxic and unsustainable energy sources (such as charcoal and firewood) must happen almost exclusively indoors. This has consequences for their respiratory systems, increasing their exposure to and slowing or preventing their recovery from COVID-19.
As traditional custodians of energy in most humanitarian settings, displaced women and girls’ risks of exposure to gender-based violence (GBV) are exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic; households’ loss of income from lockdowns and economic slowdown is increasing household tensions and the need for women and girls to collect fuelwood as a cheaper energy alternative to electricity or clean fuels. While increased social contact during COVID-19 outbreaks puts women and girls at higher risk of being infected, they are also at greater danger of sexual exploitation and violence than ever before as they travel long distances to collect fuelwood more often.
Financial stress from loss of income due to the pandemic has intensified GBV, and disproportionately affects women and girls. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projects an additional 31 million cases of GBV worldwide if lockdowns continue to limit people’s movement over the next six months. Being homebound means that women and girls are often stuck at home with their abusers. They are unable to safely leave to report incidents of violence and seek GBV services. Limited access to information and barriers to remote outreach by humanitarian practitioners is exacerbated by displaced households’ lack of access to energy; the cost of electricity is unaffordable for displaced households in many humanitarian settings and internet as well as cellular network connectivity is unreliable. Even when there is access to electricity, most displaced households only have one phone, which is typically controlled by male family members.
Despite the disproportionate impact that emergencies like the pandemic have on women and girls, they continue to be left out of decision-making when it comes to humanitarian response plans, including for COVID-19 response.
Over the past two years, Mercy Corps and the Women’s Refugee Commission have been implementing the Energy in Emergencies: Mitigating Risks to GBV(EEMRG) program, funded by the US Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration, that aims to improve safety and opportunities for refugee women and girls through improved access to energy in emergencies. Based on the findings from a Global Learning Report on the current state of practice, training materials and tools have been developed for field practitioners to help humanitarians design inclusive energy access programs that are protective and gender-sensitive. These resources comprise a handbook and in-person and e-courses that deliver guidance on inclusive energy access approaches step-by-step through program assessment, design, implementation and monitoring and evaluation phases. Immediate uptake of these resources in new and ongoing programs to course correct will further inclusive access to energy with positive spillovers such as expanding livelihood opportunities and improving the quality and safety of water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities. and will mitigate the risks of GBV during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These resources assist humanitarian practitioners across sectors, as well as energy specialists, to:
listen to diverse voices within a community to reveal unique energy needs and related risks;
use participatory approaches to overcome power differentials and elevate energy solutions to support the most marginalized and their communities; and
ensure ongoing consultations with women and girls to adapt programming as needed to ensure their needs are met and they are protected.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when gatherings such as focus group discussions are difficult due to lockdowns and social distancing, creative approaches to ensuring two-way channels with women and girls are essential, such as remotely consulting female community leaders and short surveys via SMS.
We must be deliberate and creative during these unprecedented times and take steps to ensure that all displaced women and girls can safely meet their energy needs today and into the future.