IN MOST REMOTE VILLAGES, when money is tight and sources of energy are scarce, the burden is overwhelmingly placed on women to collect free or inexpensive cooking and lighting needs. “If you look at all societies, men and women tend still to do different things,” Clancy, the gender and energy specialist, says. “The more you go to rural traditional societies -- it doesn’t matter if it's Latin America, if it's Africa or Asia -- then you get much more clearly defined [gender] roles.”
You can’t hear blood, you can’t hear a hemorrhage.
There’s evidence of this even in the U.S., where despite the common “shared housework” rhetoric, studies show that many Americans still tend to think of housework as women’s work. The same goes for many rural regions in developing countries, where women are charged with taking care of household duties. As a result, women are often in charge of providing food and warmth. In male-female households, men on the other hand typically make energy decisions when it becomes a costly purchase, like whether to pay for electricity or install a solar panel on the roof, Clancy says. Women are primarily focused on fulfilling life’s basic needs; men, on financial ones.
Though men and women have different roles when it comes to fulfilling energy needs, most energy programs don’t view energy supply and demand through the lens of gender. Programs that don’t explicitly address the needs of women will always be biased toward men, experts say, even though female-led organizations are more likely to implement programs that explicitly focus on women’s issues.
Laura Stachel, co-founder of WE CARE Solar, was observing clinics in northern Nigeria in 2008 when she first realized there was a positive correlation between touch-and-go electricity and the region’s abnormally high maternal mortality rates.
A staff member stands inside one of Shirati KMT Hospital's two operating rooms. The hospital hasn't modernized much through the years. Mennonite missionaries settled in the Shirati area in 1934. The first hospital structures opened in 1953, and, in 1960, the Shirati Hospital School of Nursing opened, which remains today.
One of Shirati KMT Hospital's two operating rooms. The hospital hasn't modernized much through the years. Mennonite missionaries settled in the Shirati area in 1934. They opened the first hospital structures in 1953, and then what remains the Shirati School of Nursing opened in 1960.
A pregnant woman carries a wash bin full of water back to her room in Shirati KMT Hospital's maternity ward.
A nurse walks down one hallway of the maternity wing of Shirati KMT Hospital.
A mural painted across the brick walls that enclose Shirati KMT Hospital depicts the cycle of malaria: "Ways Malaria Spreads" on the left, "Ways to Prevent Malaria," on the right.
“Something that we were considering a healthy event in the United States, was basically a life-threatening event in these [energy impoverished] countries,” Stachel, an obstetrician-gynecologist, says. “If you're a hospital, you need electricity 24 hours a day. You can't choose when you're going to do an emergency c-section, or choose when someone needs life-saving equipment.”
WE CARE Solar is a nonprofit that provides health care clinics in developing regions with a reliable source of electricity in the form of “solar suitcase.” The suitcases are compact solar electric systems that have the ability to provide power to overhead LED lights, LED headlamps and cell phones. The maternity kit also provides a fetal Doppler.
“I was astounded to see a hospital where at night, the lights would be off, and you couldn't even do a good exam on someone,” Stachel says. “You couldn't do a c-section. You couldn't use machinery that was in the operating theater.”
Up to 99 percent of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries, and the overwhelming majority of victims are poor women living in rural communities. The most common causes of maternal death are postpartum hemmoraghing, postpartum infection, high blood pressure and complications from delivery -- all medical emergencies that are infinitely more difficult to diagnose and treat without electricity.
Up to 99 percent of the more than 800 women who die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth are in developing countries.
Source: World Health Organization
Only 15 percent of Tanzania's population of 53 million have access to power, leaving more than 45 million in the dark.
Source: The World Bank
The average Tanzanian uses just 89 kilowatts a year. That's roughly the amount of electricity an american would use in two days.
Source: The World Bank
“You can't hear blood,” says Shannon Fulton, a solar energy professional who serves as a Solar Ambassador to WE CARE Solar. “You can't hear a hemorrhage. It's often not easy to see with a cell phone light or a kerosene lamp. Just for them [midwives and health care staff] to have that little bit of help makes them -- because they're so resourceful -- just infinitely more capable of taking care of more people.”
It’s a problem that Monica Ogunde and her neighbor Unita Akugo are sadly familiar with. Akugo is one of five local midwives in the Roche village area. Akugo says an overwhelming majority (up to 80 percent, by her own estimation) of the babies she’s delivered are born at night. And, in a village far removed from even the markedly rural town of Shirati, choices are limited for Roche’s pregnant women.
There are three options for getting to Shirati Hospital, Ogunde says. You can catch the only bus from Roche to Shirati at 3 a.m. (“If you’re late, it’s up to you”); you can bicycle; or you can walk. Ogunde says she has done all three while pregnant.
“It's not an option to use a midwife,” Ogunde says. “It happens because you don’t have money. Traveling from here to the [Shirati] hospital takes a lot of money and also time. The best option a person can choose is it’s better to go for a midwife. She goes there because she lacks something here.”
In the past, Akugo has used a large solar light to help with her nighttime deliveries, but after it broke she was forced to use a very small, simple light -- purchased from Ogunde -- but it isn’t as effective, and her patients have noticed.
“She [Akugo] was getting so many customers,” Akugo tells us, communicating through two translators -- one from her tribe language to Swahili, a second from Swahili to English. “But currently, because she doesn't having the big one [solar light], she's using the small one, so she's not getting many customers. The light is very small, compared to the big one. Now, actually she's not providing a good service.”
[Confidence] It's not tangible like holding a light. How do you hold confidence? You don't hold it. You see it beaming.
When women become empowered, they in turn help empower others. This pay-it-forward mentality represents a flicker of hope for women who struggle more than men in their communities due to their gender-specific roles for coping with energy scarcity in their homes and communities.
“Being a leader and serving yourself first, that's where true empowerment starts,” Solar Sister’s Misra says. “That is so critical, and not something people talk about as much because it's not so tangible. It's not tangible like holding a light. How do you hold confidence? You don't hold it. You see it beaming.”