The countries and territories of the Pacific share some common energy challenges, but their success in meeting them has been uneven, particularly in rural areas. Addressing the shortfalls will require a renewed focus on women at every stage, as key and informed users, decision-makers, and also engineers of the region’s sustainable energy solutions.
Improving women’s access to sustainable energy is essential to equitable and sustainable development across the Pacific, according to a report titled Gender equality and sustainable energy: Lessons from Pacific Island countries and territories, published today by the Pacific Community (SPC), together with UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
Many remote communities across the Pacific are lacking in reliable, clean energy, a burden that falls disproportionately on women and girls in those communities. And even where most households are connected to the grid, the region is home to some of the highest electricity prices in the world, which also have a gendered impact.
The report analyses available data from a range of sources to explore how the type, price and availability of energy affect women’s well-being in several complex but interconnected ways, including unpaid work in the home, health, pollution, climate change, education and financial services.
To address this broad scope of challenges, the report recommends: improving women and girl’s access to technical education and professions; ensuring women’s equitable access to productive and financial resources; broadening off-grid access to solar power; increasing clean energy in the mix supplying the grid; involving more women in energy decision-making; and improving the availability of data on gender and energy.
“Gender equality and environmental conservation are intertwined and both are key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Sarah Knibbs, Officer-in-Charge for UN Women Asia and the Pacific. “Without a shift to sustainable energy, women will continue to lag behind and suffer disproportionally, given the cooking, fuel collection and household management burdens they carry.”
In several of the 14 Pacific countries examined, almost all households are connected to the power grid. But in others, the picture is very different, with just 13 per cent of rural households in the Marshall Islands connected, 11 per cent in Vanuatu 6 per cent in Kiribati, and 0.2 per cent in the Solomon Islands.
In some countries small-scale solar power generators are filling energy gaps. More than 70 per cent of rural households in the Marshall Islands and Kiribati rely on them. Solar generators provide energy in remote areas, and without damaging air quality, which is particularly beneficial to women and girls, who are largely responsible for tending fires and cooking.
There is some evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the situation by increasing household energy use as restrictions have forced more cooking and cleaning at home.
The report also found that women in the region remain staggeringly absent from energy-related decision-making. Of all the countries examined, only one had a female minister for energy. Women also made up very few of the decision-makers in energy utility firms, and even fewer of the technicians – but the overwhelming majority of clerical positions.
Paula Vivili, Deputy Director-General of SPC, highlighted the importance of women’s voices in energy policy saying: “Engaging Pacific women in the decision-making process for our region’s energy sector will be key to providing reliable clean energy for the future of all Pacific people. This report shows we can do more to 'break the bias' and ensure gender equality at all levels of leadership.”
The problem needs addressing from the root level of education, to boost the numbers of women students in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects above the current levels of 20 per cent.
To continue furthering access to sustainable energy in PICTs, and meet the commitments made in the Pacific Energy and Gender Strategic Action Plan (PEGSAP) for 2021 to 2030, as well as Sustainable Development Goal 7, providing access to sustainable energy will be key, and will benefit women substantially.
The SPC is also working alongside Pacific States to implement the endorsed Framework for Energy Security and Resilience (2021-2030) to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels across the region whilst rapidly increasing access to clean and renewable energy.