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Cooking up improved conditions in the kitchen

Indian mother cooking [Related Image]
Paula Rey under a Creative Commons Licence

International Women’s Day, on 8 March, is a chance to celebrate all that is great about womankind, both at home and in the workplace, throughout different social, economic and political spheres.

Despite this internationally celebrated day, sadly, a new report from Practical Action, commissioned by the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves, shows that we still don’t place enough value on women’s time, health, safety and energy.

The study looks at that most basic (and gendered) of human tasks, cooking, across India, Nepal and Bangladesh. It examines the burden placed on women and girls when they lack access to clean cook stoves and fuels.

Cooking on traditional wood-burning fires is an enormous health risk, with the associated inhalation of smoke leading to almost 4 million premature deaths per year, despite many new, improved cook stoves being available.

These can bring enormous benefits: saving time and money because they use less fuel and reduce the risks of ill-health. Many agencies are working on distributing these, yet so far, just 10 million improved stoves are being used, against a target of 100 million by 2020. Why isn’t this process happening faster?

One reason lies in deeply entrenched gender roles. Simply put, women are the cooks. According to the study, they are the decision-makers when it comes to what food to cook and when buying small items such as kitchen utensils. But men hold the purse strings. They control decisions about purchasing assets (such as a new cook stove) or taking out loans.

The study finds that women-headed households (which are usually poorer and can face social discrimination), are slightly more likely to adopt improved cook stoves and/or cleaner fuels than male-headed households. Men’s perceptions are seen to be a barrier to the wider uptake of these life-improving, life-saving technologies.  

Cooking is so much part of the fabric of life that how it is done, and the effort and health risks involved, are rarely questioned. This is despite the fact that the tasks of collecting fuel and cooking take up such a huge amount of time (mostly women’s).

On average, a family using a traditional stove spends 12 hours and 40 minutes per week collecting fuel; women spend an additional 28 hours or so per week cooking. Therefore, women using a traditional stove spend 35 hours a week cooking and collecting fuel, the equivalent of a full-time job for many of us.

Using an improved cook stove reduces fuel collection to 10 hours 20 minutes, with women seeing the greatest saving of 1 hour 20 minutes per week. Time spent cooking is also reduced by 3 hours 30 minutes a week, and 8 hours 10 minutes if people switch to a gas or electric stove.

What to do with an extra 5 or 10 hours a week? As expected, women valued that time and spent it on the things that mattered to them: giving more time to their children, growing crops, attending community meetings. They don’t need to ask their children to spend so much time doing household chores and can make sure they are keeping up with their schoolwork. In other words, the extra time gave them vital ingredients for successful economic development.

The study also looked at the extent to which women are involved in the manufacture or sales of cook stoves and fuels. The assumption is that this would make a significant difference to adoption rates, and offers a great opportunity for the economic empowerment of women.

Sadly, this is where even more deeply entrenched cultural factors kick in. ‘Unless a woman is well-educated, from an urban background, and is mobile (owns and drives a vehicle),’ the report explains, ‘she is usually unable to overcome the social constraints and cultural barriers to establish a new enterprise to manufacture, distribute, and/or sell improved cook stoves, a market almost completely dominated by men in most parts of South Asia.’

There is clearly a lot to be done. We need even more attention and investment for clean cooking solutions, and to change the global obsession with extending the electricity grid and building new power stations.

So as we celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday, let’s celebrate everyone who cooks for us. Let’s also remember and be thankful that we live in the half of the world where cooking doesn’t kill us.

Lucy Stevens is responsible for leading Practical Action’s learning and influencing work around poor people’s access to the energy services they need to help them escape poverty. This includes issues around decentralized generation of electricity and clean, smoke-free cooking.

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