Gender Equality Could be a Step Towards Ending Energy Poverty

The 8th of March every year marks international women’s day. This year’s theme is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”.  For many women all over the world, gender inequality is a daily experience. And when it comes to heating or cooling, cooking and lighting a home, research has shown that women are at greater risk of energy poverty than men because of unequal opportunities.

Gender parity against energy poverty

Most EU countries still do not identify or quantify vulnerable energy consumers and do not implement adequate alleviation measures.  Today marks a call to action for bringing gender parity into the fight against energy poverty. As a result of inequality, women and women-led households are disproportionately affected by energy poverty. Apart from (and potentially also as a result of) a male-dominated political culture, women are vulnerable to discrimination of different types such as lower income, more difficult access to education, etc. A recently published report by Empowermed sheds light on energy poverty in Europe and examines corresponding policies and legislative frameworks. The report found the intersection between energy poverty and gender is crystal clear when looking into the causes and effects of energy poverty.

Women in energy poverty may be vulnerable, but they are not helpless. Substantial evidence shows that women are autonomous agents of their lives and of change. We need to empower girls and women to be aware of support options, to seize help, to find solutions for healthier lives. Life in energy poverty often comes with major health issues including respiratory diseases, heart attacks, stroke and mental disorders (stress, anxiety, depression), but also acute health issues, such as hypothermia, injuries or influenza. All this can come with isolation and loneliness.

Women in energy poverty may be vulnerable, but they are not helpless.

Several mission-driven cities in Europe – like those participating in the WELLBASED and POWER UP EU projects – do work on social innovation including activities addressing women facing a difficult energy situation. The pilot city of Edirne in Turkey, for example, designs an urban programme whereby women in a Roma neighbourhood will get support to improve their home conditions and health through home visits, installation of efficiency kits and heating systems and health parameters measurements. They will also get advice on how to optimize their bills and solve debt problems. In the Belgian city of Eeklo, one objective is to remove barriers for vulnerable households to consume affordable, local, green electricity. This could include free shares in an energy cooperative, energy advice service or support in choosing the supplier that best fits their needs.

While being left in a choice between heating or eating, some households also struggle to ‘treat’. When being interviewed in a focus group in the framework of WELLBASED, most residents in pilot cities explained they suffer from health issues such as joint aches, colds, rheumatism, and respiratory issues due to the poor condition of their homes. Amongst them was a woman living in Óbuda-Békàsmegyer, a district of Budapest, who argued that she rather spends the little money she has on energy for herself and her daughter than on medication to relieve her pains: she hopes to protect her daughter that way from suffering from the mold caused by lack of ventilation and health-related consequences. In a joint effort, the district’s local authority and social associative partners will listen to the needs of this lady (and others) and will audit her energy and health situation over several months. Ultimately, by making her home more comfortable through energy refurbishment and more efficient household appliances, the project intends to reduce her energy bill and improve her overall wellbeing at home. 

Renewables to reduce the gender gap

While optimizing energy consumption can be one way to help people in energy poverty, access to renewable energy production can be another: that is the path chosen by six cities involved in the POWER UP project. Looking at cooperatives in Europe, their leading team and membership structure, it seems that women are not fully represented. A study published by Energy Cities in 2019 revealed renewable energy communities are indeed more women-friendly than the rest of the energy sector, and yet we are still far from parity. They employ more women but struggle to attract female members, especially vulnerable women. People with modest incomes remain mostly excluded from the energy cooperatives (as they cannot pay the participation sum), even though they are the most likely to know and formulate their needs and difficulties. The 6 living labs spanning from Belgium to North Macedonia will build capacity amongst vulnerable people, notably by co-designing innovative energy services (including generation of renewable energy) together with them. As part of the process, women will be mobilised as much as possible to become active prosumers.

Considering the urgency of the task, public authorities, civil society, national policy-makers and private sector actors need to use the coming months for designing more inclusive, gender-equal and democratic strategies. These can range from the individual to the national level, from small interventions to reforming the energy market so that it provides space and fair chances for everybody, including people of all gender, race and place!

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Never before has energy poverty been such a serious threat to so many European citizens as it is now. Since the current energy crisis started, national Parliaments and local governments all over the EU discuss what immediate measures can be taken to help people come through this winter without freezing and starving. The latest POWER UP report may guide decision-making.