Guest Article: Women are highly affected by energy poverty, but strong in fighting it

By dr. Lidija Živčič, , Focus Association for Sustainable Development, Coordinator of H2020 project EmpowerMed

Photo by MD Duran via unsplash

 Women are disproportionately affected by energy poverty – a condition that gets worse when gender inequality is aggravated by age, class and ethnic background among other factors. It is therefore crucial to take a closer look on the relationship between energy poverty and gender. The EmpowerMed project supports health improvement of people affected by energy poverty in the coastal areas of Mediterranean countries, with a particular focus on women. Recently, the gender expert partner of the project compiled a short analysis[i] that provides insight into the connection between gender and energy poverty by examining physiological, health, economic and social/cultural dimensions.

Physiological dimension

 Women are more heat and cold sensitive than men, due to their physiology (chronic temperature-related discomfort, heat and associated diseases). Recent studies found, that women are more sensitive to extreme temperatures, which may place women and girls suffering energy poverty at a greater risk. A higher share of women makes up the population of older people due to longer life expectancy, which, in combination with the fact that elderly women (65+) are more likely to be poorer than men if they are living alone (23% of older women, 18% of older men), makes elderly women particularly prone to energy poverty problems. Disability and health status are also important physiological factors that aggravate vulnerability to energy poverty among women[ii].

Economic dimension

 Women’s disproportional vulnerability to energy poverty is linked with an array of economic reasons, but their uneven share in unpaid care work and the gender pay gap as well as gender pension gap are key. The gender pay gap and gender pension gap is strongly related to economic welfare as well as energy poverty. In 2017 in the EU, men were paid, on average, 16% more than women. In 2018, women in the EU aged over 65 received a pension that was on average 30% lower than that of men. Also, being a single mother is a strong factor in economic dimension: women make up almost 85% of all one-parent families in the EU. One-parent families headed by women are also more likely to be materially deprived than those headed by men.

 Health dimension

Living in inadequately heated or cooled homes has negative implications on respiratory and cardiovascular systems, as well as on mental health and well-being. It may also particularly affect persons with disabilities who have health problems. Several studies pointed out women’s higher vulnerability to winter mortality. Infections, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, headaches, nausea and dizziness can be caused by cooking or heating with solid fuel (such as coal or wood), and there is a risk of poisoning and death.  Inadequately heated or cooled homes can also affect mental health as they cause increased stress, reduced well-being and comfort, and depression. It is important to highlight also the issue of psychological and social health as a higher share of women is at risk of poverty or social exclusion: stigmatisation and social isolation hinder normal everyday life, such as work or study, and decrease of social relations.

Social/cultural dimension

Responsibilities and household roles are important social and cultural factors. The gendered division of labour generally assigns women the responsibility for the provision of household energy in relation to their spheres of influence in the household. Women do not have equal voices on policy, economy and the household – even though laws foresee them. Analysis of visits in 100 households, affected by energy poverty in Albania shows that 60% of men had decision-making rights about household issues and only 40% of women[iii]. Another important aspect of social/cultural dimension is the care work. The responsibility for dependent children and other (family) members in the household increases the unpaid care work of women.

Experiences in working with households, affected by energy poverty, show that although women are disproportionately affected by energy poverty, they are a strong in tackling it. This is why EmpowerMed is focused on empowering women to tackle energy poverty. This is done in several ways. The project implements practical measures against energy poverty, such as

  • Collective assemblies, which gather people affected by energy poverty to help to transfer and exchange knowledge and skills about energy use, reading energy bills, changing energy providers and any other action that can reduce effects of energy poverty. In this manner people support and empower each other and work with each other to seek solutions to their problem of high energy bills.
  • Household visits to people affected by energy poverty, whereby the advisors check the energy and water bills of the households, conduct a set of measurements and discuss household’s habits. By doing this, they identify the potentials for saving energy and water in the households or needs to increase the consumption. Based on these, the advisors implement low-cost measures by installing free devices, but they also give advice for changing energy use habits and further possible steps.
  • Do-it-yourself solutions for households affected by energy poverty – from workshops, where people find out about simple low-cost or no-cost measures to tackle energy poverty to workshops for self-production of solar thermal panels and DIY reading of smart meters to enhance people’s understanding of their electricity use.
  • Health workshops, which train health experts and practitioners to detect health impacts of energy poverty and equip them with simple measures to reduce the impacts or direct people to further assistance programs. Some workshops also work directly with affected people, addressing the issue of mental health and providing support to the affected people by a therapist.

 While implementing these activities, the data and information is collected in gender disaggregated manner, so that in the next step the impacts of various practical energy poverty alleviation measures can be assessed, together with their potential to empower women. The assessment will help to formulate policy recommendations on how to tackle the gender-energy poverty nexus at local, national and EU level. 

 Focus on women in the activities of the project is ensured through a variety of approaches. The key strategies for engaging women are: gender trainings for partners (e.g. on gender-just communication, indicators, policy recommendations, etc.); gender-just communication of project activities – language and visuals that give priority to women, dos and don’ts of gender-inclusive communication; relevant part of the communication is conducted through women-oriented channels, such as single mother’s clubs; activities are conscious of women’s schedule (and time poverty of women) and organise activities in a manner that women can participate carefree; project uses gender-disaggregated indicators and data for monitoring and reporting and reviews gender-targets regularly; and ensures that gender equality principles are respected when providing policy advice.

Recommendations for Gender-Aware Approaches for Energy Poverty Measures

 At this stage of the project the policy recommendations for addressing the disproportionate effects of energy poverty on women are not fully developed yet, but some gender mainstreaming methodologies which could be used to create gender-aware approaches to addressing energy poverty can already be highlighted[iv].

Raising awareness about gender / intersectional aspects and energy poverty: It is still very much needed to raise awareness about the issues related to gender, as well as other social categories which are intersectional, and energy poverty. There is a large deficit in awareness and capacity building – incl. enhancing expertise in this area – about gender and energy poverty, especially among the policy- and decision-makers. It is needed to develop a gender-aware understanding of energy poverty, as well as the awareness that energy poverty is a gender issue.

Energy poverty definition that takes gender and intersectional aspects into account: There have been calls for a definition of energy poverty which covers the EU, but instead of trying to develop a pan-European definition of energy poverty, member states should develop their own national definitions with guidance at the European level on the factors that need to be considered. Such an approach would allow flexibility to reflect specific conditions. However, no matter which definition of energy poverty is finally decided upon, it needs to take an intersectional gender approach into account. It could explicitly say that factors such as income, gender, race, ability and geographical location may influence the persons’ vulnerability to energy poverty and should therefore be considered when applying solutions[v]. In this framework, it would be important to conduct a gender analysis, which provides the necessary data and information to integrate a gender perspective into policies, programmes and projects and allows for the development of interventions that address gender inequalities and meet the different needs of women and men.

Collecting sex-disaggregated data with an intersectional perspective (race, age, class, ability…) on energy poverty: In part, the lack of awareness is linked to the lack of data. Apart from scarce case studies and small samples, the EU does not have available data disaggregated by sex, age and disability related to energy use and specifically energy poverty. Absence of sex-disaggregated data is likely to reinforce existing inequalities and the vicious cycle between lack of data and no remedial action. Good data is the basis of policy making as well as allowing benchmarking and tracking progress. Given the importance of Energy Poverty Observatory[vi] in promoting indicators to measure energy poverty in the EU, it would be appropriate for it to also promote analysis of sex-disaggregated data with an intersectional perspective.

Engendering energy poverty indicators: In the light of afore mentioned gender analysis, the development of gender and intersectionality sensitive indicators of energy poverty would be an important step in informing energy poverty policies to be more gender-sensitive. It would also serve to design targets for action. The revision of National Energy and Climate Plans of the EU member states, which is due in 2024, could be a good occasion to provide engendered energy poverty indicators.

 READ ABOUT EMPOWERMED HERE: http://empowermed.eu/

[i] Birgi, Olgu Gizem, Antonia Fuhrmann, Katharina Habersbrunner, and Anke Stock. 2021. Gender and energy poverty – facts and arguments. EmpowerMed. Accessed May 21, 2021. https://www.empowermed.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/2104.Empowermed-Energy_Poverty_and_gender.pdf.

 [ii] Robinson, Caitlin. 2019. “Energy poverty and gender in England: A spatial perspective.” Geoforum 104: 222-233. Accessed May 21, 2021. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718519301460.

 [iii] Struga, Meivis, Arion Sauku, and Valbona Mazreku. 2021. Analysis of the Household Survey. Forthcoming, EmpowerMed.

 [iv] Recommendations based on

Živčič, L., González-Pijuan, I., Guiteras Blaya, M., Mazreku, V. and Tirado-Herrero, S. 2021. Combatting energy poverty with gender just policies. In Why the European Green Deal needs Ecofeminism – Moving from gender-blind to gender-transformative environmental policies. EEB and WECF. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://eeb.org/library/why-the-european-green-deal-needs-ecofeminism/

 [v] Habersbrunner , Katharina, and Eva-Carina Martschew. 2020. Report on gender aspects of existingfinancial schemes forenergy povertymeasures. EmpowerMed. Accessed May 21, 2021. https://www.empowermed.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/D1.4-Report-Gender-Financial-Schemes-Final-for-Web.pdf.

 [vi] European Commission. 2021. EU Energy Poverty Observatory. Accessed May 21, 2021. https://www.energypoverty.eu/.