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Opinion: Reforming The Energy Sector Is A Gender Issue

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by Victoria Ohaeri

Successive administrations have made concerted efforts to reform the energy sector from which the country derives more than 90 percent of its foreign exchange income. Who formulates and delivers these reform proposals and who benefits from energy interventions?

Are the developers and implementers of energy policies sensitive to the socially-determined roles of men and women, and the ways historical gender constructs affect access to modern energy services? Has an opportunity been lost to study the ways in which energy reforms might impact on different segments of the population, especially women and children?

Are there opportunities to capitalise on the current reforms to correct gender disparities in energy access by delivering targeted solutions that have greater potentials to reduce poverty, empower women and transform gender relations?

Despite being ranked as Africa’s largest oil producer and holder of the 9th largest natural gas reserves in the world, estimated at about 180 trillion cubic feet, Nigeria at 4,000MW daily power generating capacity is still struggling to meet the energy demands of its 170 million citizens.

Huge expenditures committed to building power plants and critical energy infrastructure have not eradicated darkness, leaving 52 percent of the population either facing acute shortages, or without access to electricity at all.

At 48 percent, Nigeria is far behind South Africa’s 82.7 percent electricity access rate, Senegal’s 56.5 percent and Morocco’s 98.9 percent.

Poor access to energy supply in a country richly endowed with energy resources has been succinctly described as an “energy paradox,” and the single major factor contributing to the record-high levels of poverty and underdevelopment.

In performing their traditional gender roles of cooking, heating, laundry, cooling, lighting, storage and the like, women have more need for energy for domestic use. As such, they bear a significant share of the burden of energy poverty, a situation compounded by income inequalities and lower literacy levels among women.

A number of reform initiatives in the Nigerian energy sector promise to close the gap between energy resource wealth and energy access poverty.

The Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) embodies the reforms in the oil and gas industry. Framed in a gender-neutral language, the PIB is an amalgamation of 16 different legislations, policy statements and institutional regulations which are dispersed in a maze of conflicting legal frameworks.

As such, official emphasis for the reforms was skewed towards harmonising the conflicting standards in order to embed coordination, transparency and accountability in the sector, while maximising the government’s revenue generation drive.

Minimal attention was apparently paid to the different ways in which the reforms would impact on different categories of end-users, especially disadvantaged groups. That possibly explains why the word, “women” or “gender” was not mentioned anywhere in the 223-paged document, indicating very scant recognition of the different energy needs of men and women, as well as the disparate impacts the reforms may have on them.

Are current reform interventions in the sector framed in a way that will help close the gaps in energy poverty, and address the institutionalised inequalities that exist in the access to and control of energy resources?

For instance, will the PIB’s gender-blind posturing facilitate this objective? Policies that may appear gender-neutral can have negative, positive or neutral impacts on women. On one hand, gender-neutral language leans towards “equality” by treating both men and women the same way, enjoining them to participate in the oil and gas sector on equal terms.

On the other hand, neutrality ignores the socially-determined roles and responsibilities of men and women, including the structural barriers that prevent full participation of women in social and economic activities.

By so doing, it fails to appreciate the importance of demographics in policy development, and misses an opportunity to involve women in developing newer and cleaner energy solutions that ease women’s burden of domestic work, and improve their social and economic wellbeing.

No where is the impact of energy sector reforms on gender more evident than in the area of energy decision-making. Out of the 22-man Dr. Rilwanu Lukman-led Oil and Gas Sector Reform Implementation Committee (OGIC) inaugurated on April 24, 2000, which spearheaded the initial reform efforts, only two members were women.

Although the petroleum ministry was then headed by a woman, a subsequent special task force inaugurated in 2012 to fast-track the passage of the Bill had no female representation.

Would it have made a significant difference in the lives of women – in terms of economic empowerment and expansion of access to energy – if more women were involved in decision-making in the energy sector? “Was former petroleum minister Diezani Allisson Madueke not a woman? What difference did that make in the lives of women?” many would ask. Granted that a complete makeover of the legal and governance structures of the oil and gas industry was the PIB’s main agenda, sweeping reforms of that magnitude yield impacts that have social, economic, physical and psychological dimensions, experienced differently by male and female end-users.

First, improving domestic gas utilisation bears directly on women’s responsibilities in the home. Their role as primary users of domestic gas uniquely places women as key stakeholders whose perspectives and experiences must inform the policy redesigns affecting gas supply and distribution.

This means that the underrepresentation of women at various levels of the gas supply and distribution chain slows down efforts aimed at breaking the cycle of inequalities in accessing energy services and benefits. Without women being at the table where policy decisions are made, securing stakeholder support for targeted promotional strategies needed to hasten the transition to modern cooking fuels and cleaner energy, becomes more difficult.

Downstream operations comprise the construction and operation of gas processing facilities, oil and gas transportation infrastructure, natural gas transmission and product pipelines, tank farms and stations.

These are high-scale activities that predominantly interfere with, or in most cases, destroy the traditional landholdings and livelihoods of host or indigenous communities where women play a major role in the local economic activities such as farming, trading, fishing etc.

The resulting interference often results in damage to local livelihoods, disrupts relationships and social support networks which local women depend upon for their sustenance. Many studies have established that chemical and radioactive pollution from hydrocarbons place a disproportionate burden on women and children considering the variety of daily interactions they have with the environment.

Women suffer an additional share of environmental and economic burdens when spillages that are not immediately cleaned up cause fires, destroying homes, wares and natural vegetation on which women depend on for their daily social and economic sustenance.

These varied impacts of sectoral reforms are seldom studied. Economic considerations, instead, take preeminence, leaving issues specific to women unidentified, unaddressed and relegated.

Furthermore, evaluating and documenting the extent to which women benefit from petroleum products’ pricing regimes and subsidy structures is key to understanding “the links between gaps in gender equality and a lack of energy access.” UNDP (2014) rates Nigeria’s income inequality quite low at 152nd position, out of 182 countries surveyed.

Higher tariffs will no doubt, lead to increases in government revenue, but the end result will be greater reductions in overall energy access and consumption for women in particular, considering the wage gaps between the sexes.

Given the inverse relationship between price and demand, higher tariffs will exclude lower income groups further from the benefits of petroleum products and services. With biomass forming about 78 percent of domestic/residential energy consumption, pricing insensitivity will push more and more women to resist cleaner fuel alternatives.

In other words, without measures to mitigate the effects of gender-insensitive tariff increases, the preference for biomass fuels will heighten, mounting barriers to actualising the PIB’s objective of improving the utilisation of liquefied petroleum gas.

What about industry accidents? Kerosene is, for instance, commonly used among the poor and low-income households for cooking and lighting. A study found that in a number of kerosene disasters that occurred in Lagos in 2001, the female-to-male ratio of killed/injured casualties is 116-18, and 2500-358 in Edo State, as of 2004 respectively. In June 2015 alone, major incidents of fuel tanker explosions were recorded in different parts of Nigeria, especially Lagos, Rivers, Ondo, Kebbi and Anambra States, leaving hundreds killed and properties worth millions of Naira destroyed. While it is true that women share the impact of these accidents with men, coping with burns and injuries, homelessness, the death of the breadwinner, the loss of wares and resulting unemployment, including the disruption of children’s education, the loss of friendship ties and communal support mechanisms when they relocate, places additional burdens that have to be taken on by women after these incidents occur.

In sum, when energy policy reforms and institutional redesigns do not take the gender-differentiated impacts into account, this oversight creates justification for discriminatory practices against women to persist.

This type of inadvertence will ensure that the gaps in energy access and energy poverty remain wide. It also constitutes a failure to remove obstacles to women’s enjoyment of all their social and economic rights, as codified in a host of international agreements and treaties which the Nigerian government voluntarily signed onto.

In understanding how the energy sector reforms impact on gender, the allocation of energy resources and benefits, economic power of end users, political control and decision-making are relevant subjects of analysis. While there is inadequate research information that exhaustively evaluates the gender-specific impacts of energy policies and programmes on both men and women, current evidence points to interesting trends and advocacy issues for the future.

Victoria Ohaeri is the executive director of Spaces for Change (www.spacesforchange.org), a youth-development and policy advocacy organisation based in Lagos, Nigeria. She can be reached on [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.

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