Today there are almost 80 million people living in humanitarian conditions globally – their lives uprooted by armed conflict or natural disaster. That number is so enormous that it is hard to imagine each individual story and the immense pain and trauma that occurs when a person is forced to flee their home, sometimes separated from their family as they seek protection in refugee camps or with host families.
The energy needs of refugees and internally displaced people are often not addressed. And yet when household energy needs aren’t addressed, the burden most often falls on women and girls. Because food distributed by humanitarian agencies must be cooked before it can be eaten, women must have access to fuel in order to properly feed their families. They are forced to leave the relative safety of the camps to travel far distances on foot, sometimes spending hours searching for fuel wood, risking their physical safety by walking into conflict zones, wild jungles, and other dangerous environments.
Additionally women often depend on the sale of firewood, as there may be no other way to earn money. Ensuring livelihood opportunities for women in humanitarian settings is crucial for many reasons, including reducing the need to collect firewood for sale. According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, families may have to trade their food rations for cooking fuel.
Recently I traveled with Erin Patrick, Senior Associate for the Women’s Refugee Commission, and head of the Fuel and Firewood Initiative, to visit displaced communities living on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is an estimated 1.7 million internally displaced people in DRC. It was incredible to learn the stories of individual women who have been displaced from their homes and forced to flee and take shelter with host families. We saw that improved cookstoves can be part of the solution – not only to reduce the fuel needs of these families, but to provide livelihood opportunities for women too. We met women who were being trained on how to make improved clay cookstoves, as well as women who had already started their businesses by forming a cooperative and pooling resources to gather the necessary upfront capital. These programs were not only providing income generating and skill acquisition opportunities for these vulnerable women, they were empowering them to provide fuel efficient technologies to the broader community, thus reducing their reliance on fuelwood.
On this Humanitarian Day, we should all take a moment to think about the millions of women who spend hours every week doing backbreaking labor and risking their lives to provide cooked meals for their families. Let’s remember that many solutions exist to change this daily reality, and that we can make a difference in people’s lives by creating access to and implementing improved and clean cooking technologies.