U.N. sustainable energy campaign focuses on women and children's health

by Lisa Anderson | https://twitter.com/LisaAndersonNYC | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 6 June 2014 07:21 GMT

In a 2007 file photo, 5-year-old Doratea does her homework as her lunch, corn tortillas, is toasted on an open flame on the outskirts of Chiquimula, Guatemala. REUTERS/Daniel LeClair (GUATEMALA)

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In many countries, access to clean, affordable and sustainable energy is a matter of life and death

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations launched its Decade of Sustainable Energy for All campaign on Thursday and announced that the focus of the first two years will be the impacts of access to clean and affordable energy on the health of women and children.

“Energy issues are global issues, but everywhere around the world, including in Africa, energy is a woman’s issue. It can mean the difference between safety and fear, freedom and servitude, and even life and death,” said Kandeh Yumkella, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative and CEO of the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) campaign.

Noting that 58 percent of health facilities in sub-Saharan Africa are without electricity while many also lack running water, energy is can be the key to survival, particularly for women and newborns, said Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).

“Babies don’t always wait until sunrise,” he told the forum.

Lack of energy in health facilities to power lights, modern medical equipment and refrigeration for medicines and vaccines all contribute to maternal and newborn deaths, often from preventable causes.

Osotimehin described a programme called the We Care Solar Suitcase, packed with solar panels, which UNFPA began two years ago in rural Sierra Leone to provide electric light for maternity wards.

“So you get all the power you need to deliver the woman safely and care for the newborn,” he said, adding that the programme has been replicated in several African and Asian countries including Liberia, Nigeria, Malawi, Uganda, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Nepal, and soon will be set up in Bangladesh.


Lack of clean energy in the home is another major threat to women’s and children’s health, said Maria Neira, director of public health, environmental and social determinants at the World Health Organization (WHO).

Some 1.2 billion people live without any access to electricity, often using wood, animal waste and charcoal for cooking and heating.

Smoke from these fires produces indoor pollution which causes 4.3 million premature deaths annually, most of them among women and children who spend more time around the fires in the home, she said.

Pneumonia cases among children could be reduced by 50 percent if they stopped breathing polluted air at home, she said.

Indoor pollution from these fires result in more deaths of women and children annually than HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and malnutrition combined, said Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of UN Women.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves has set a goal of having 100 million clean cookstoves — powered by fuels like ethanol and liquefied petroleum gas – in use by 2020, but affordability deters many poor women from abandoning traditional stoves.

Gathering wood and fuel for traditional stoves puts women and girls at risk as they forage far from home and robs them of time that could be spent at school, in decent wage employment or in social and political participation, Puri said.

It is estimated that many women in developing countries without access to clean energy or running water spend up to four hours a day gathering fuel and hauling water, she said.

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