Cooking Dinner, Risking Rape

Monday, 1 June 2015 17:31 GMT

Two women carrying firewood © UNHCR_B. Bannon, Kenya 2011

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Nearly 40% of the world’s population relies on firewood, charcoal, animal dung or other traditional biomass sources for their energy needs. This percentage is undoubtedly much higher for those displaced by violence and conflict, who spend a huge amount of time foraging for fuel for cooking, lighting and heating.  

Indeed, for refugee women, cooking dinner can be an all-day affair – and a dangerous one. While humanitarian agencies generally provide food to refugees, the food must be cooked before it can be eaten, and fuel is rarely provided. Over time, as more and more trees are harvested, women and girls must venture farther and farther to find firewood. Women – and their daughters – spend up to eight hours a day just gathering wood or other cooking fuel. In the process, they, not infrequently, are attacked, raped, even killed.

Almost 10 years ago, the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) put the issue of Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE) on the humanitarian agenda. Today, I am in Oslo, Norway, to accept a Green Star Award on behalf of the WRC. In the words of the presenters – the United Nations and Green Cross International – WRC is being honored for its “holistic approach to humanitarian action by bridging the gap between gender, health and environmental issues in humanitarian settings.”

We know that employing SAFE strategies can help protect communities and the environment that they live in. But to be truly effective, we need to collaborate across sectors – protection, environmental, health – from identifying contextually appropriate alternative fuels and culturally appropriate fuel-efficient stoves to developing sustainable solutions that reduce the time intensive, drudgery work carried out by women and girls. From day one of a humanitarian crisis, we must develop a comprehensive set of activities that address the energy challenges in these contexts. By combining cleaner, more efficient technologies, along with safer livelihoods and environmentally sound activities, communities, particularly women and girls, will be able to shift away from risky and harmful wood-fuel dependence.

Safe Access to Fuel and Energy work is, in every respect, an issue of dignity, of life and death, for millions of women and girls.