Female State of the Nation: Part 3: Energy and the Environment

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist

Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

Read Part 1 – ‘Where are we’ here, and Part 2 ‘Women and the economy’ here

It seems important that I’m sitting in my living room in the dark during load-shedding trying to finish this portion of the SONA analysis on the environment and energy. It couldn’t be much clearer to me that the decisions that the State makes about how we produce and distribute our energy impact on women, particularly those that are already facing other challenges such as poverty.

What does it mean for women when the lights go out, or to have never been connected to electricity in the first place?

In public, it means dark streets, intersections, public transport routes, and footpaths. Any woman reading this does not need any further detail about the sense that this darkness is inherently dangerous, and limits women’s ability to enjoy their Constitutional right to move freely, and to be free from violence. Part four of this series will deal with crime and human rights, and so I will not belabor the point further in this section.

As noted earlier in this series of posts, the NDP makes clear that access to basic services and human rights such as safe drinking water, electricity, and quality childhood education could “free women from doing unpaid work and help them seek jobs.” As already discussed in the section on women and the economy, women’s economic empowerment is critical to the development and well being of the entire family.

Across South Africa, around a third of households do not have access to electricity. When there is load shedding or no electricity, households must use alternative energy sources to prepare food and heat water. As of 2011, according to the census, only 26 percent of households in informal settlements used electricity as their main form of energy for heating, 39 percent used electricity for cooking, and 43 percent used electricity for lighting. In 2011, 57 percent of all households classified as “informal dwellings” (shacks not in backyards) had no access to electricity at all.

According to the 2010 survey of time use, women were twice as likely as men to spend time on food preparation and where electricity is not available, this is likely to take much longer, placing further domestic strain on women. In addition, a Housing Development Agency Report noted that female-headed households in informal settlements are more likely to be overcrowded and house skip generation families, as well as non-family residents, creating an even more extensive burden on these women.

There are multiple risks of using these alternative sources of energy to cook and heat the home. A 2009 World Health Organisation bulletin noted that because paraffin is highly flammable, this can lead to fires either from malfunctioning appliances, placing appliances too close to curtains, or accidents. In addition, the use of paraffin in wooden or cardboard structures, as well as in population dense areas means the risk of fire is further escalated

The energy crisis in South Africa is at the forefront of many of our minds because of the inability to flick a switch and turn on a light. What may seem a more distant issue is the impact of our energy decisions on women in the long term. I think it’s important then to explore what climate change means for women, and how South Africa’s current energy decisions are likely to increase our contribution to climate change and are already affecting the health of many South Africans.

It is well documented that in times of environmental crisis women are often hardest hit. This has been recognized by women’s organisations and institutions for many years: Women and the Environment was one of the 12 areas of critical concern acknowledged in the Beijing Platform for Action developed in 1995. The document states that:

“Awareness of resource depletion, the degradation of natural systems and the dangers of polluting substances has increased markedly in the past decade. These worsening conditions are destroying fragile ecosystems and displacing communities, especially women, from productive activities and are an increasing threat to a safe and healthy environment.”

In South African policy this has also been acknowledged. The NDP notes that climate change will have a negative effect on the health of communities, and that this will disproportionately impact women and children.[1]

It was positive that the 2014 State of the Nation speech called for

” a radical transformation of the energy sector, to develop a sustainable energy mix that comprises coal, solar, wind, hydro, gas and nuclear energy.”

And yet, simultaneously there continued to be investment in coal power at the expense of our renewable electricity infrastructure, and at the expense of the health and livelihoods of many South Africans, many of whom are women.

The impact of these decisions on the health of the population is not something that will only happen in the future. It is already happening. The environmental impact is not only a long term, but current. Witbank in Mpumalanga has the world’s dirtiest air. In The Poisoned People Greenpeace Africa details the stories of the people who live around coal mines, many of whom who are already suffering from respiratory problems as well as other health conditions.

There continues to be this push for coal despite the fact that it already results in hundreds of deaths per year as a result of air pollution, and this could increase when (if) Medupi comes online. This could be as high a figure as 20 000 premature deaths. Eskom has consistently exceeded air quality limits on pollution, and yet in 2014 applied for the right not to comply with Minimum Emission Standards. There continues to be this push for coal despite it becoming a massive financial burden for the State, and it being well over budget. Eskom continues to get State bail outs that could be invested in renewable energy which is labour intensive, will reduce South Africa’s contribution to climate change, and will not have the same devastating health impact that coal is having. It is important then, to listen to SONA tomorrow to consider whether

The decision to continue to invest in environmentally damaging energy production methods such as fracking, rather than redirect investment towards greener energy will impact on women. Other than the aesthetic destruction of environments, fracking is an incredibly water intense activity. Even if the well-documented risks of groundwater pollution do not happen in South Africa, we are a water scarce country. Where water is not readily available, or in times of drought, again the impact on women’s domestic responsibilities is significant.

In addition, around 16 000 women are involved in the formal agricultural sector[i], and many more are involved in informal agriculture in order to meet the food security needs of their families. Women already face additional obstacles to becoming involved in agriculture (such as access to technology and finance), and climate change will only heighten these challenges. Thus, a drought or an impact on the ground water because of pollution will have a profound impact on women in terms of job losses, and food insecurity. This is already happening in countries bordering and near to South Africa.

Our future energy decisions, proposed and discussed in the State of the Nation, will continue have a profound impact on women. As you listen to the speech tomorrow, consider how the decisions about energy and the environment could impact on women.

If women are not mentioned at all in this regard, as has frequently been the case, it is likely that their interests will not be considered. It is clear that any further decisions about our energy future should be made only with specific consultation with women’s interest groups, in order to ensure that our energy and environmental policies are gender-sensitive, and in line with the Constitution which provides every South African with the right to have an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing, and to have it protected for future generations to come.


[1] NDP

[2] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013). Page 252, 253

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