UN refugee agency takes a big step to make women’s and girls’ lives SAFEr

Wednesday, 21 May 2014 18:58 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One third of the world’s population—and a far greater percentage of its refugees and internally displaced persons —depend on fuel that is dangerous to collect and deadly to use. The new Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE) Strategy, which the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) formally launched last week in Geneva, will save many lives that would be needlessly lost or broken. The strategy seeks to ensure that refugees and other vulnerable people can meet their energy needs in a safe and sustainable way.

Biomass—including firewood, charcoal, animal dung and agricultural waste – is the most common energy source in refugee settlements. Refugees use these dangerous and unsustainable fuels to cook their meals, heat their homes and light their communities. The challenges simply to access energy are numerous. Collection is often dangerous and supplies are unsustainable. And, the situation becomes even more dire during complex emergencies and protracted crises. Aside from the immediate danger of collection, the World Health Organization estimates that 4.3 million people died because of household air pollution in 2012. Air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk.

Women and girls largely bear the burden of energy challenges. They risk rape and attack while collecting firewood and while moving about in unlit camps. They – and their babies – breathe toxic smoke while huddling over three-stone cooking fires for hours every day.

As recently as 2005, fuel was a neglected factor in refugee safety. But today, safe and sustainable access to energy is increasingly recognized as a human right – essential for the safety, well-being and productivity of the people the humanitarian community serves.

The Women’s Refugee Commission has been working successfully since 2005 to put cooking fuel and energy on the humanitarian agenda. In 2007, WRC spearheaded the creation of the InterAgency Standing Committee Task Force on SAFE in humanitarian settings, which it co-chaired with UNHCR and the UN World Food Programme. The task force produced the first-ever guidance on providing safe access to energy in refugee settings.

For the past year, the Women's Refugee Commission has been a leading partner and contributor to UNHCR’s new SAFE Strategy. The strategy is a major step toward reaching millions of vulnerable people in need. Years of research, project implementation and advocacy by partners culminated in this significant achievement.

The May 13 launch was attended by high-level staff within the United Nations, and several members of the UN Foundation Board of Directors, including Chief Executive Officer Kathy Calvin, Founder Ted Turner, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.

"Safe access to fuel and energy stands at the intersection of so many things that are of concern to UNHCR – from protection, to nutrition, to health, to the environment, to livelihoods to education," Steven Corliss, director of the UNHCR Division of Programme Support and Management, said at the launch event. "Fuel and energy is a basic need, like food, water, shelter, health care, education.”

For almost a decade, the Women's Refugee Commission has been championing safe access to fuel and energy for the world’s most vulnerable people. It will continue to work with UNHCR, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, International Lifeline Fund, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, UN World Food Programme, Mercy Corps and others to help make energy history.

UNHCR Global Strategy for Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE): www.unhcr.org/energystrategy