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.
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 PeopleGreenpeace 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.
 South African Institute of Race Relations (2013). Page 252, 253
There I sat, five hours after leaving home, sunburned and wind chapped. I was hungry and thirsty and had spoken about engineering and women’s rights and weddings and which city in South Africa was the best. I had travelled thousands of kilometers the day before, and despite the anticipated excitement, at that moment I just wanted to get back to the love of my life who was sharing nine of our fourty hours together this month with this event. But, as it is when your heart and imagination are so desperate for a political leader that can inspire, as soon as Barack Obama walked in I was in awe. I felt hope.
He is a man that walks onto the stage with confidence, and at the same time seems to invite you to challenge him. His body language says ‘I’m doing a great job, but dare me to do better and I’ll accept the challenge’. He is a leader that speaks with such obvious love and affection for his family that it is heartwarming. He makes you imagine dinner conversations around the table that are heated and passionate and aimed at making a better man and president out of him. He has the privilege of being surrounded by three strong women before he has even left the house.
He spoke with compassion and kindness of Mandela, with pride in the economy in America (he is obviously a big Apple fan), with honesty about ending wars and the damaging impact of colonialism. The questions people asked gave him the opportunity to appear as though he had things under control. I was glad that the last question focused on something a bit more difficult – the US environmental policy.
We know that the US has a poor track record environmentally – a perfect example of how legislation protecting the environment is not nearly as good as not polluting it in the first place. Recently Obama has changed his tune, saying that he’d stop dangerous and environmentally disastrous projects like the Keystone pipeline if they showed that the environmental impact would be negative.
In South Africa, the Constitution provides the right for all of us to live in an environment that is not bad for our health. Yet we see so often that environmental impact assessments just make sure that companies meet the bare minimum rather than actively going out of their way to protect the land and environment that belongs to all of us. I hope that when President Obama evaluates the impact of Keystone on the environment, he does so in broad strokes, not in a narrowly defined minimum norms and standards type of way. I think the question should be simple – will the innately valuable biodiversity, beauty, and sanctity of the land be improved by Keystone? As someone who grew up in Hawaai, I know he knows the answer to this question in his heart.
As a feminist South African, I know that the environment I live in affects women’s lives most tangibly. I know that in times of scarcity violence against women increases. I know that times of scarcity will surely follow if we do not address climate change (something Obama readily admits is the biggest environmental challenge we have ever faced in history). I have hope that Obama will begin to lead the world in making the right decisions about the environment – I hope too that the South African government will also evaluate the real impact on its people of treating the planet as something expendable in the path to economic growth.
If I had been given the chance I would have asked something even more closer to home. I wanted to ask how as President, he would ensure that the rollback of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights in the USA came to a stop so that when Malia and Sasha are grown up, they will know that they have a right to make decisions about their own sexuality and sexual health. But this question of course impacts many women around the world who are dependent on US aid in order to access these rights in their own countries. If the anti-abortion movement in the US gains strength, how will it affect the conditions of our own sexual rights?
We all know that abstinence only programs are a slap in the face to many women who cannot negotiate safe sexual interactions because of a patriarchal system that says that men have a right to have sex, or because they face physical and sexual violence when they refuse a partner’s sexual advances. We know that most men who will ever go on to rape do so for the first time in their teens, and that as much as 30% of all girls at school have already been the victim of sexual violence. We know that early pregnancy has a profound impact on young girls lives – they are less likely to continue schooling, more likely to be stigmatised by the education system than supported by it, less likely to complete schooling and further qualifications that can allow them to succeed, escape poverty, or exit violent relationships. Nobody is advocating for abortion as contraception – what feminists and sexual and reproductive health rights activists are saying is that women are best placed to gage their readiness and ability to raise a child, and that they deserve the right to make decisions about their own bodies. How then does he feel about the restriction of women’s rights to abortion and sexual health services? How does he feel knowing that when he leaves office, Sasha and Malia may have fewer sexual rights than when he went in?
I don’t doubt that Obama is a good man – perhaps that’s naive, but he is a man that inspires hope. I believe that he wants the best for his daughters – that he feels delighted that they are strong willed. I believe that he would never want them to have no access to decision making power over their own bodies. I believe that he is aware that women’s right and need to access sexual and reproductive health rights is something that makes democracy stronger. I hope that when or if he gets the chance to make decisions about how best to consider these rights, he makes the decision to advance them rather than restrict them. Because, President Obama, it is your responsibility as a father and a leader to make sure women are supported.
I may never get the opportunity to ask that question, but I hope that it is one that he has asked himself.
Our world is changing and unless we get involved, it will not be changing for the better. Watched this amazing video from Greenpeace and was so proud that we have a branch of Greenpeace right here in JHB, SA. If this doesn’t motivate you to get off your ass and do something, I don’t know what will. And, in a more personal light, this made me so proud of my incredible boyfriend Mike Baillie who you can see dangling from a crane and shouting in in a protest. Love your work! Keep up the good work Greenpeace and thank you for fighting the good fight for us.
Find out more about how you can get involved with Greenpeace Africa here.
Harriet Ludidi, a 46 year old unemployed mother of five, has found away of cutting costs. In eMalaheni , an informal settlement inKlipspruit, Soweto, Harriet spends most of her day making coal balls. She gathers the coal dust that covers practically everything in thearea, due to the vicinity of a coal yard. Then she digs up clay from the river bank and rolls both substances into balls that dry in the sun. After a few hours the coal balls are ready to be used to heat her house or to cook food. She has no access to public services such as electricity or running water.
Harriet’s inventive survival strategy illustrates how poverty can deeply affect a person’s life. She has to spend such a big chunk of her day foraging for fuel, that it does not allow her any time for job seeking, education or anything else. She saves money, but simultaneously jeopardises her long-term opportunities.
The insidious legacy of Apartheid has left many communities in South Africa without durable access to basic needs such as liveable housing, electricity, education and health care. Within these communities women came off worst. What is commonly referred to as ‘the feminisation of poverty’ might seem a foreign concept at first, because poverty affects both men and women. But, young girls often drop out of school to help earn an income for the family, women are often solely responsible for taking care of the household and massive unemployment has hit the typical women industries (textile, clothing and leather). More women than men are unemployed.
Critics claim the ANC has not managed to set the record straight. It has embraced a neoliberal agenda and has focused on economic growth instead of fulfilling the constitutional promises of gender equality and eradication of poverty. Add to that, the crisis in the delivery of services in South Africa and the steady increase of the price of food and it’s easy to see that women like Harriet have to make impossible choices between paying for basic services or putting food on the table.
The story about Harriet’s survival tactics, as recorded by the Star on Monday, also point to another topical issue. South Africa is a big consumer and producer of coal, a major polluter. But, as world leaders convene in Durban in a few days to decide on measures at the UN level to stop climate change at COP17, the position of the world’s poor is not really taken into account. Even though climate change undoubtedly negatively affects her life, it is blatantly clear that Harriet and millions of other women living in poverty worldwide,cannot really afford to worry about the environment.