The cookstove-rape prevention myth and the problem with simple solutions

Sustainable char-briquettes made from coconut husks burning at Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Credit: Ranyee Chiang/Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves)

Indoor air pollution might not be a problem for you and I, but it is a deadly issue for roughly 3 billion people in the world. According to the WHO, household air pollution killed 4.3 million people in 2012. That accounts for nearly 8% of global deaths that year.

The solution to the problem is the elimination of pollution in homes. That means ending the practice of burning wood, coal, dung, etc. inside homes for cooking and heating. Right now, the US, World Bank and others are tackling the issue by attempting to expand access to electricity in the homes. That helps take care of some of the problem, but cooking still remains a challenge. That was until the innovation of clean cookstoves. These new stoves use a lot less fuel to cook meals and emit little to no smoke.

Supporters of the technology say that the benefits go well beyond the effects of indoor pollution.

“On average, women and girls in developing countries spend up to 20 hours a week searching for fuel — time they could spend going to school, running a business, or raising their families. And if they live in areas of conflict, leaving home to search for fuel puts them at great risk of assault or rape,” wrote then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and actress Julia Roberts, in the Huffington Post.

The argument makes a lot of sense. Time spent collecting wood is reduced by using clean cookstoves, thus freeing up time to do other tasks. Since the chore of cooking and collecting firewood usually falls on girls and women, the clean cookstove offers a real opportunity for them to do better in life. Other benefits include the slowing down of deforestation and improved safety for the girls and women who may have to collect wood or other fuel alone.

While an appealing idea, the evidence does not hold up when it comes to preventing rape. A new research article goes further to argue that applying a technological fix to a complex problem like rape can possibly make things worse.

“When humanitarian advocates construe immensely complex crises as “manageable problems,” the promotion of simple technical panaceas may inadvertently increase the burden of poverty for user-beneficiaries and silence the voices of those they claim to champion and serve,” say Samer Abdelnour and Akbar Saeed, in their paper Technologizing Humanitarian Space: Darfur Advocacy and the Rape-Stove Panacea.

Safety and health are what led to the promotion of clean cookstoves in Darfur. The problem of sexual violence has been used to galvanize attention and action for conflicts from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Kosovo. Getting people behind a solution to sexual violence, especially when the solution has other benefits, is a more viable step for aid agencies to take as compared to some other interventions. It was considered win-win in a region that experienced conflict and instability.

Abdelnour and Saeed trace the connection between firewood collection and violence against women to a 1998 article by Mary Anne Fitzgerald of Refugees International. Her interviews at the Dadaab refugee camps, located in Kenya for Somali refugees, uncovered the lack of security for women. A quote from a Anti-Rape Committee chair at one of the camps makes the connection between collecting firework and violence against women. Fitzgerald goes on to say that the organization believes that firewood should be distributed to all families to prevent attacks. Cookstoves were eventually used to help alleviate the problem, but they did not work.

“While there was very little systematic monitoring and evaluation, Refugees International consulted with several humanitarian workers in Darfur who concluded that fuel efficient stoves did not appear to significantly reduce the amount of firewood that women needed nor the amount of times they ventured out of the camps,” says a 2007 report from Refugees International.

“While there is little evidence that producing fuel-efficient stoves reduces violence against women, the best fuel-efficient stoves did produce other benefits for women.”

A similar report from the UN Refugee Agency found that addressing solely the problem of firewood collection does not solve the problem of sexual violence. It evalutes the success of a firewood project in the Dadaab refugee camp.

“Our findings suggest that firewood collection provides a convenient context or location for rape, but should not be viewed as its ‘cause’. We cannot conclude that if women were provided with more firewood, they would be significantly less at risk,” reads the UN report.

The problem here is less about cookstoves as a technology and more about the connection between a complex problem (sexual violence) and a simple solution (clean cookstoves). Abdelnour and Saeed worry that applying technological solutions to big problems has the potential to cause harm. That is because the problems that are often at much higher levels are localized, they argue.

“The stove panacea inadvertently (and very subtly) transfers the world’s most serious problems into the private lives of the most vulnerable,” write Abdelnour and Saeed.

Over simplification of a problem can lead to seemingly simple fixes. The concern here is that the forces that are actually contributing to a problem, such as sexual violence, can be overlooked.

HT Duck of Minerva and Development Policy


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]

  • Potential Energy

    Potential Energy, the distributor of the Berkeley-Darfur Stove in Darfur, Sudan, and our technology partner, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), are disappointed by the inflammatory nature of this article. The authors are guilty of the very thing they criticize – gross over simplification of an extremely complex issue.

    For starters, Potential Energy has never claimed that clean cookstoves
    are a “panacea” for sexual violence in humanitarian settings, as Abdelnour and
    Saeed assert. In fact, we go out of our way not to make such political statements that could easily jeopardize our work in Darfur. It is a fact that in 2004 LBNL scientists were approached by U.S. government agencies to assist in Darfur, and that those agencies specifically requested scientists to address the issue of women’s exposure to sexual violence while gathering firewood outside of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. However, after conducting in-field research and implementing a cookstove project in Darfur for almost ten years, it has become apparent that the on-the-ground realities of cooking are very complex.

    While clean cookstoves may seem like a simple technology, they are actually
    a tool that addresses—but not magically solves —a multitude of problems
    affecting roughly 3 billion people who cook their meals over open fires. Under
    extremely difficult circumstances we continue to be one of the only groups
    still operating in Darfur. We persist because we believe that working with local organizations and women’s groups to distribute the Berkeley-Darfur Stove is an important part of improving the lives of Darfuri women. Potential Energy and our partners are making exceptionally challenging good-faith efforts to distribute a cookstove that needs less firewood for daily cooking tasks, less money spent to purchase the wood, less time spent cooking, less exposure to harmful smoke, and less time or effort spent collecting wood (than the baseline case of cooking the same meal over a traditional three-stone fire). However, we do not cease our efforts with dissemination and leave with vague hopes that our cookstove makes a difference; we measure and document impacts.

    Unlike the authors of the original piece, Abdelnour and Saeed, we do not make claims of impact or lack thereof without scientific basis. We know based on rigorous analysis of primary data that Darfuri women are using their Berkeley-Darfur Stoves. In a recent study led by UC Berkeley, small unintrusive stove-usage monitoring sensors were installed on Berkeley-Darfur Stoves distributed in North Darfur. These sensors demonstrated that 73-81% of recipients of free Berkeley-Darfur Stoves use their stoves on a regular basis. The high levels of adoption of the Berkeley-Darfur Stove also translate to meaningful savings in fuel and money for our customers: a 2010 survey showed that recipients of the Berkeley-Darfur stove save 50% of their previous firewood expenditures.

    Frankly, Abdelnour and colleagues have little direct experience with Potential Energy, our on-site partners, or with the Berkeley-Darfur Stove. Based on very limited experience and interactions, Abdelnour continues to spout critiques of our efforts and that of the global community of private and governmental organizations taking data-driven actions to improve the lives of women with clean cookstoves. We encourage anyone reading this discussion to read the article cited in the below footnote, and the Abdelnour piece, and decide for themselves.

    We would like to emphasize that our rigorous research demonstrates that
    the Berkeley-Darfur Stove is a well-adopted and effective technology for improving cooking-related challenges in Darfur. We eagerly welcome Abdelnour and his colleagues to conduct and publish independent, rigorous, objective, and
    statistically-valid tests to determine whether fuel-efficient stoves in Darfur are perceived to be beneficial by their purchasers or recipients, and also whether they are objectively beneficial along various quantitative metrics, such as exposure to smoke, amount of wood needed to cook a meal, amount of time to cook a meal (these metrics should be easy to measure), and refute our assertions of benefits to the women cooks in Darfur.

    We fervently believe that clean cookstoves are a critical tool for improving the lives of half the planet’s families who cook food over open fires and we will continue to operate as leaders in the field of clean cookstoves by distributing and studying the impacts of the Berkeley-Darfur Stove in Darfur, Sudan, as well as extending our clean cookstoves efforts to other parts of the world.

    [1] Wilson, D. et al. (2014, June). Comparing Cookstove Usage Measured with Sensors versus Cell Phone-Based Surveys in Darfur, Sudan. Paper presented at Tech4Dev: the UNESCO Chair in Technologies for Development 2014 International Conference, EPFL, Lausanne, Switzerland.

  • Samer Abdelnour

    A Response to Potential Energy

    For the second time, Potential Energy (PE) has felt compelled to rebut the critique of their association with the myth that “stoves reduce rape”. The first was two years ago, in response to a blog piece published with the Stanford Social Innovation Review.[1] As a researcher, it is encouraging to know that people do read the work and find it worthy of comment. It certainly confirms that we say something important, else why bother? PE does not attempt to engage the substantive ideas in our paper, or recognize that they (and others) may over-estimate the benefits of their stove. Instead, PE misrepresents our thesis and attempts to discredit the “evidence” of the research. For this reason it is necessary to respond.

    1) Clarifications

    PE’s rebuttal suggests a misreading of our paper, which critiques the “stoves reduce rape” discourse and explores the serious consequences for user-beneficiaries when simple technical panaceas (encompassing solutions) are promoted as alleviating the “multitude of problems affecting roughly 3 billion people”. An example are fuel-efficient stoves, which are reasonably suggested to reduce the negative health effects of cooking. The stoves are also amazingly marketed as a means to reduce climate change, deforestation, and violence, which are complex problems whose root causes have very little to do with—and are thus unlikely to be resolved by—poor women cooking.

    PE accuses our paper of “gross over simplification of an extremely complex issue”. This is simply not the case. Our study critiques how advocacy and humanitarian organizations came to market a simple domestic technology as being capable of reducing sexual violence. Second, we theorizes how stoves—which were first promoted a protection tool in Darfur—emerged (without concrete evidence) a tool to reduce rape in conflict zones globally. Finally, we examine the potential consequences for intended users (in our case, conflict-affected women and girls), when simple technical solutions are marketed as capable of resolving complex problems.

    PE further suggests that they have “never claimed that clean cookstoves are a “panacea” for sexual violence in humanitarian settings”. Though not the only organization to have promoted or benefited from the “stoves reduce rape” claim, PE was one of the first to do so. In fact, there is a long and intimate association between PE and the stoves-rape myth. PE’s former name is Darfur Stoves Project, which was founded by renowned Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist Dr. Ashok Gadgil, who remains listed on PE’s website as Founder and President. Darfur Stoves Project was a central player in the Darfur stoves market, and a key advocate of the stoves-rape myth in the US. A simply keyword search reveals a large number of claims that suggest the Berkeley-Darfur Stove (BDS) reduces the risk of sexual violence among many other problems. Dr. Gadgil, whose work I have a profound respect for, has consistently presented the BDS as a means to reduce sexual violence, including at two international conferences I personally attended. This includes the recent 2014 Tech4Dev conference at Lausanne, Switzerland.

    By PE’s own admission, it is “a fact that in 2004 LBNL scientists were approached by U.S. government agencies to assist in Darfur, and that those agencies specifically requested scientists to address the issue of women’s exposure to sexual violence”. This reveals just how vital the issue of sexual violence was to the work of the Darfur Stoves Project (rebranded Potential Energy, for expansion beyond Darfur) and other stove-promoters in Darfur. Moreover, though much is written that associates the BDS as reducing violence against women, I am not aware of any instance where PE has attempted to ground these claims.[2] That PE today wishes to distance itself from one of its founding purposes (upon which it has received a great deal of resources [3]) is very encouraging. I can only hope that our rigorous questioning of the rape-stoves myth has had something to do with this.

    PE notes that “after conducting in-field research and implementing a cookstove project in Darfur for almost ten years, it has become apparent that the on-the-ground realities of cooking are very complex”. Why did it take so long? As we document in our paper, reports as early as 2007 suggest that there is little evidence to suggest stoves were effective in addressing sexual violence
    in Darfur. In fact, I am not aware of any research in Darfur that directly measures and verifies health or environmental benefits of stove interventions beyond “perceptions” and other proxies, such as fuelwood purchases. In Darfur, millions of dollars were spent to deliver tens upon tens of thousands of stoves (including the BDS) to displaced women and girls, without concrete evidence to support these interventions fulfilled policy objectives. This raises questions as to the type of scientific “evidence” used to market the benefits of stoves.

    2) Evidence

    PE’s rebuttal suggests that they “do not make claims of impact or lack thereof without scientific basis”. This is questionable. Let me explain: Simply put, stoves are a technology with a primary function to burn fuel and create heat, that in turn is used to cook. This process results in direct by-products, such as the release of emissions, which in rudimentary cooking methods or in the absence of a chimney (which many effective stove interventions incorporate) can have harmful health impacts. Many of the amazing benefits attributed to stove interventions, our paper suggests, are supposed “truths” that depend on myths, memes, narratives, or stories. These somehow give stoves superpowers, such as the ability to reduce rape.

    In statistics speak, the investigation of causal relationships among the burning of fuel and resulting emissions are more direct (especially if they are directly tested as stoves are used in the field). Burn X fuel, create Y heat and Z emissions. These are straightforward causal relationships. However, to prove that X fuel reduces C complex problem (violence, climate change), depends on narratives (or memes) that describe or tell a story of causality in absence of scientific evidence.

    To claim that stoves save lives requires direct evidence to that fact. Does PE have direct statistically verifiable scientific evidence that proves their stove interventions “save lives” (as they market on their homepage)? Highly unlikely. Marketing surveys that measure perception or fuelwood use are just this: surveys that measure perception and fuelwood usage. Similarly, increases in energy efficiency and reduced emissions are just that. Stove promoters should not assume that these measures scientifically prove that lives or environments are saved. Similarly, it is not enough to measure efficiency gains over a general three-stone fire baseline, and then attribute these to health, economic, or climate benefit estimates. In many instances, improved stoves used poorly have little efficiency benefits over three-stone fires, and in Darfur many people use cooking methods that already more efficient than three-stone fires.

    To verify that stoves save lives, real baseline data and indicators of health (such as blood and lung tests, as well as disease and mortality statistics), climate measures (household and village pollution levels), and other dependent variables of interest (including extensive control variables) would need to be considered and measured in experiments (for example, randomized controlled trials) over time, and importantly, changes would have to be appropriately attributed to stove usage. PE would do well to follow comprehensive experiments such as the Harvard study by Duflo-Greenstone-Hanna, which analyzed the outcomes of stove interventions in India.[4]

    The logic that questions the causal linkages between stove use and marketed social outcomes (such as reduced violence and climate change) can be extended for a more seriously examination of how stove testing standards may or may not appropriately gauge the promoted benefits of stoves. One way to overcome this is to put more efforts into rigorous tests of stoves as they are used by beneficiaries’ in the context of their lived experience and deemphasize the dominance of homogenized controlled in-laboratory tests (such as the popular Water Boiling Test).

    More independent verification is needed for stoves and the tests that are used as a technique to validate particular stove designs. This is particularly important when the same people are involved in designing and manufacturing stoves, and developing and advocating specific tests that verify these stoves. Simple questions must be asked, such as: What do these tests actually measure? What verifiable claims (not assumptions) can be made based upon these tests? Do these tests predict future impact in terms of fuel use and social outcomes?

    3) Ad Hominem Comments

    The suggestion that I have little direct experience with the BDS stove or stoves research in Darfur is simply untrue, and the good people at PE are well aware of this. Though the recent paper (upon which the above blog was written) is based on a rigorous discourse analysis of secondary documents, I have conducted extensive fieldwork in Darfur on stove interventions, including the BDS. As early as 2006 I began to document how different organizations competed over various stove designs (Darfur’s “stove wars” [5]), which in part was motivated by access to donor funding. This was a time when Dr. Gadgil was better known for his modification of CHF’s mud stove, which itself was a knock-off of Practical Action’s early work on stoves in Darfur. I interviewed Berkeley engineer Michael Helms in Khartoum, when he was working very hard to modify the stove before its launch, and conducted interviews at the BDS factory in Darfur when it was first set-up by CHF.

    From my time in Darfur I met many users, producers, and promoters of stoves, and listened to their stories. For instance, in the initial push to promote stoves in Darfur, women in camps often received multiple stoves from different organizations. At that time, the simple delivery of a stove was taken as a viable a proxy for reduced violence. And of course metal stoves were very popular in those days; given away to camp residents for free (or a few dollars), they could be sold for its scrap metal value and provide extra income for struggling families.

    4) Moving Forward

    I have always appreciated those talented and caring people who risk their lives to help others, and who dedicate years of work to the betterment of those less fortunate. This is true of an entire community of stove designers, many of whom dedicated their personal time and resources to producing better efficient stoves. Our intention is not to belittle this humanitarian work, but to suggest that there are serious consequences when the complexity of a crisis (such as sexual violence) is reduced in a way that enables the marketing of simple solutions (such as a stove). These include the masking of local voices, and placing the burden of poverty into the private lives of the most vulnerable (such as with claims that women can ensure their own safety or somehow reduce climate change through cooking). Designing and selling better quality stoves for low-income markets is one thing, saving lives is another.

    With this in mind, I greatly appreciate the generous offer by PE for my colleagues and I “to conduct and publish independent, rigorous, objective, and statistically-valid tests” on their stove interventions. My colleagues and I are pleased to collaborate on such an initiative on the basis the following access is granted, ideally to us and other independent researchers for purposes of triangulation:

    i) Make all existing research designs and raw data available on stove interventions in the field and testing protocols, so that we might examine the variables you consider in your work, modes of analysis, findings, and conduct independent statistical tests;

    ii) Compile all reports, press statements, advocacy and marketing materials, strategic plans and memos, from the launch of the Darfur Stove Project to its rebranding as PE and on an ongoing basis, so that they may be used for further discourse analyses;

    iii) Open your doors in Oakland, Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere, so that we might undertake case studies of your operations, from marketing to donor relations, technology design and development, partnerships and project implementation, as well as monitoring and evaluation of stove interventions.

    In return we would: examine the data for interesting findings, research stove testing methods, and conduct fieldwork on stove usage in Darfur and Ethiopia, all with the purposes of better understanding the impacts of stove interventions and for providing feedback for improving intervention effectiveness. We would also be keen to explore measures for more sophisticated analysis and attribution of stove use outcomes. Such work would lead to scholarly and practitioner-oriented publications, as well as teaching cases for the benefit of students who may be keen to enter into careers and research in the field of humanitarian technology.

    [1] Abdelnour, Samer. “If Stoves Could Kill”, Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog, September 17 2012. Accessible at:

    [2] Keller, Sarah Jane. “East Bay scientist reduces violence against Darfuri women through better cooking technology”, San Jose Mercury News, January 3 2012. Accessible at:

    [3] USAID. “Potential Energy: fueling the cookstoves markets in East Africa”. Available at:

    [4] Duflo, Esther, Michael Greenstone, and Rema Hanna. “Up in Smoke: The Influence of Household Behavior on the Long-Run Impact of Improved Cooking Stoves”, Discussion Paper 2012-41, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Environmental Economics Program, September 2012. Accessible at:

    [5] Abdelnour, Samer, and Oana Branzei. “Fuel-efficient stoves for Darfur: The social construction of subsistence marketplaces in post-conflict settings”, Journal of Business Research 67: 617-629, 2010. Available at: