In South Africa, the month of August is dedicated to celebrate women’s emancipation and achievements. However, many poor women remain trapped and affected by lack of energy safety in their own homes. Take the story of my colleague Sibongile. As she told the Move Magazine, she was holding her 8-month-old daughter when she went to get her milk from a pot on the stove. She moved the pot, the paraffin stove exploded and within seconds flames spread wildly through the shack. She cried for help and threw water on it, but the flames climbed even higher. She heard her baby cry. She had not realised that she had dropped her. She closed her eyes and felt around until she got to her, picked her up and ran out the house. It was only then that she felt the pain. Her whole upper body was burned.
Luckily her daughter only suffered first degree burns and was discharged from hospital in no time, but it took over 9 months and many hospital transfers for her to finally return home. Her body was healing, but the emotional and social adjustment to her life as a burn survivor was just beginning. Even her daughter was afraid of her because her mouth was burnt closed. She only accepted her after she had surgery to open her mouth and she could recognise her voice. People on the streets ran from Sibongile or said terrible things. She stayed indoors and if she went outside, she wore a mask.
She survived prolonged hospitalisation, disfigurement, stigma and rejection. Today, she is grateful that through her story she can empower communities with knowledge about the potential dangers of household energy and how to use it safely.
Globally, 310 000 recorded burn deaths occur annually as a result of fires, scalds, chemicals and electricity. Most burn injuries occur in the home and involve women and children. Burn risks and injuries in the home correlate with socio-economic status, gender and age. Poor women and children bear the greatest burden of limited access to affordable and safe household energy.
Women, as the primary caregivers adopt major responsibility for the care of burn survivors. They spend most of their time in hospital waiting rooms and wards of burns units; and take ongoing care of burn survivors in the home – often at the expenses of opportunities, jobs and careers.
In South Africa, the majority of women, who are also the majority of the poor, do not have access to, or cannot afford, the energy services they require every day. 2.1 million households are non-electrified and use a mix of energy sources. Those who use paraffin for cooking typically use candles for lighting. This is a lethal combination, especially in urban informal settlements where fires spread rapidly.
1.6 million people suffer burn injuries annually. The majority are the urban poor who live in informal settlements. Approximately 1 300 children (mainly under the age of three) die each year from burn injuries. Inhalation injury (mostly following fire burns) is estimated to be around 2.2 percent.
Safe household energy can empower women
Traditionally, women have a triple responsibility for well-being - reproductive, productive and community. They are also responsible for procuring and managing the energy sources and appliances required to fulfil their tasks. Access to adequate, affordable and safe energy could transform women’s lives by:
- Reducing their excessive workload and freeing up their time;
- Improving their own and their families’ health and well-being;
- Increasing their access to education and information;
- Increasing their own and their families’ safety and security;
- Expanding their economic (livelihood), social and political opportunities;
- Participating in decisions that affect their lives; and
- Impacting on the environment.
Women are consumers, users and managers of household energy sources, services and appliances. They have a central role to play across the entire energy value chain, from participating in formulating energy policies through to choosing the type and amount of energy sources and services they want to use in their daily lives. So, we call on government to urgently establish a household energy safety policy that covers all energy sources used for cooking, lighting and heating at home and ensure the involvement of women, such as Sibongile, in the process.
- Patrick Kulati is chief executive officer at Household Energy Safety Association of Southern Africa, a public benefit organisation that exists to promote household energy safety and reduce the number of energy related incidents that take place daily in South African homes.