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

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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]humanosphere.org.