EmpowerMed – Women and Health in the Light of Energy Poverty in the Mediterranean

By Lidija Zivcic, FOCUS

In the coastal areas of Mediterranean countries, the challenge of energy poverty comes with features that are specific for this area. Having an important proportion of low-income households, the area is remarkable mainly because during the summer season, cooling component of energy poverty is highlighted. Hence, when talking about energy poverty, the Mediterranean region needs a wider diversity of energy services beyond heating, especially given the importance of summer comfort. Summer thermal comfort becomes more and more an issue in this area as heat waves are becoming increasingly more frequent and intense, increasing vulnerability to climate change. 

 

Lack of pre-installed central heating systems and electricity-based heating, which is generally speaking more expensive, are another specificity of this region. Dwellings have none or low insulation and there is a high level of deteriorated housing stock, which makes the situation more challenging. The area also faces challenges of austerity-induced energy vulnerability.  

Additional key aspects of the region are arrears, indebtedness and the risk of disconnection, as well the link between energy poverty and housing insecurity with evictions as the worst consequence of housing unaffordability. Because coastal urban areas are ‘hotspots’ of tourism, tensions between locals’ and tourists’ demand for housing lead to housing unaffordability. This tension makes it difficult for low income households to find adequate dwellings to satisfy their needs. Lastly, coastal urban areas are also affected by precarious, low-quality jobs (tourism, harbours…).  

In order to address these challenges, the project EmpowerMed – Empowering women to take action against energy poverty in the Mediterranean – aims to contribute to energy poverty alleviation and health improvement of people affected by energy poverty in the coastal areas of Mediterranean countries, with a particular focus on women. The project will mainly contribute through implementing practical solutions, tailored to empower over 4,200 households affected by energy poverty to manage their energy consumption and improve their access to appropriate energy resources. However, the project will also assess the efficiency and impacts of various practical energy poverty alleviation measures to formulate local, national and EU policy recommendations and promote the policy solutions for tackling energy poverty at local, national and EU level among 220 decision-makers, 560 social actors, 100 utilities, 180 health experts and 100 energy poverty experts. 

Women and women-led households are disproportionately affected by energy poverty, while women’s participation is necessary in acting against energy poverty. Due to labour division, women tend to spend more time working at home and thus are more exposed to energy poverty and its consequences. Generally, there is a higher share of women who are at risk of poverty and social exclusion than men. Women are also more heat and cold sensitive than men due to physiology (chronic temperature-related discomfort, heat and associated diseases).  

A few other factors, such as the gender pay gap (e.g. in 2017, men were paid on average 16% more than women), less time for paid work (compared to men, women are less likely to work full-time, more likely to be employed in lower-paid occupations, and less likely to progress in their careers) and higher share of mothers in single-parent households, which are traditionally more affected by energy poverty (women make up almost 85 % of all one-parent families in the EU), make women more exposed to risks of energy poverty than men. However, women can be strong agents in tackling energy poverty. ‘Gender myths’ portray women in energy poverty as vulnerable, helpless or oppressed despite substantial evidence of women being autonomous agents of their lives and of change.  

This is why we engage with women in EmpowerMed.  

The project focuses on health because research shows that energy poverty has significant impacts on people’s health, while health is to also be considered a reliable indicator for energy poverty.   

Health effects associated with energy poverty include anxiety, stress and depression but also increased physical morbidity rates and greater mortality rise. More precisely, cold housing has been directly linked to respiratory pathologies and circulatory diseases and conditions such as flu, cold, arthritis and rheumatisms which can be worsened due to living in an inadequately heated home. There is growing evidence of the gendered health effects of energy poverty, and of the gendered health beneficial effects of building retrofits. 

Economic and social difficulties that people affected by energy poverty face (such as unaffordable bills and debts, choices between food and warmth, social isolation, degraded self-esteem, and the associated stress) lead to impacts on mental health. Regarding mental health, the impact of housing and energy precariousness is suspected to be significant even though evidence is scarce. In Barcelona, a small 100-people survey of people affected by or at risk of eviction and/or disconnection from basic utility supplies found out poor mental health conditions in 70% of men and 83% women. These percentages were practically four times higher than the average scores for the whole population. 

While there is some knowledge on the health impacts of living in energy poverty, there have been very few cases in which health practitioners have actually been included in the efforts to alleviate energy poverty. It has by now been established that there is a need for collaboration of social and energy actors, but there is also a strong need to include health practitioners. 

Read more about the Project here: https://www.empowermed.eu/ 

Credit: Image by Empowermed