Elevating the status of women reduces risk of exposure to harmful indoor air pollution – a leading cause of premature death in the developing world – according to new research.
Kelly Austin, a Lehigh University sociologist and lead author of the study, said reducing gender inequality will be critical if developing countries are to reduce the health impact of air pollution on women and girls.
“When women are economically empowered, or socially empowered, they’re much more likely to make cleaner fuel choices,” Austin said in an interview with Humanosphere. “They also likely spend less time in front of the hearth, or cooking, because instead they’re in school or they’re working in the formal sector.”
The study is the first effort to simultaneously consider both the causes and gendered health consequences of solid fuel use, which causes more deaths each year than HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined. In this regard, Austin says that researchers refer to pollutants from the use of solid fuels as a “silent killer” that is largely forgotten by aid groups and policymakers.
“There are hundreds or thousands of NGOs geared towards issues like HIV,” Austin said in an interview with Humanosphere, “but there really seems to be a gap in awareness about other more chronic conditions like household air pollution.”
Nearly 3 billion of the world’s people cook or clean by burning fuel sources like wood, crop wastes, charcoal and dung, which emit small soot particles that penetrate deep into the lungs, according to the report. Experts have linked long-term exposure to these pollutants with stroke, ischemic heart disease, cataracts, pneumonia and other health problems.
Use and exposure to these fuel sources is highest among women and young children within developing nations, according to the study, because traditional gender roles dictate that women and girls bear the burden of preparing meals near the domestic hearth in poorly ventilated kitchens.
Solid fuel sources are also inefficient, and unsurprisingly, the report said women bear most of the burden of collecting them for use in the household.
“Young women in households that cook with polluting fuels are found to spend 18 hours a week on average gathering fuel compared to five hours a week in those than use clean fuels – time that could be spent in school,” the report said.
The majority of women using these types of fuels live in countries across sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia, where legal and social barriers prevent them from earning income, taking out loans or working in the formal sector. Without a substantial change in policy, the report said that the total number of people relying on solid fuels will remain largely unchanged by 2030.
Austin said reducing gender inequality in terms of income, education, use of contraceptives and employment can ease the burden on such women by reducing the time they spend at the hearth, enabling them to advocate for cleaner fuels and purchase safer cooking and heating sources.
“Just giving women access to property rights, legal rights, to have ownership of money or capital could be a huge step in propelling them into the formal sector,” she said, “or even just getting them out of the household and working in different context.”
Austin added that in most developing countries, tackling gender inequality is a daunting task. Even when policymakers support changes that promote gender equality, such as legalizing land ownership for women, she said it can take years for women to reap the benefits.
“We can hope that with an increase in women’s empowerment these numbers will change, but gender inequalities are a persistent issue,” said Austin. “And one of the scary things is often even when the law formally changes … it’s still not practiced on the ground.”