Can electricity provision be game changer for women's empowerment?

19 May 2017
by Mini Govindan

In a state like Bihar, which continues to be among the most economically deprived in India with one of the lowest income per capita and highest incidence of poverty, Jeevika - a micro finance programme for women has been hailed for its positive economic impact. Implemented by the Bihar Rural Livelihood Promotional Society (BRLPS) of Government of Bihar, this on-going programme has indeed contributed by developing women's Self Help Groups (SHGs), enabling women to access credit and services and enhance their livelihoods. The initiative especially intends to strengthen the livelihood and position of underprivileged groups such as women dalits (socially underprivileged / marginalized population in India) and other poor women in rural areas for the welfare and development of these women and their larger families. Jeevika, in its endeavour to enhance access to electricity, has also collaborated with TERI to promote Solar Home Systems (SHS) in non-electrified villages and in villages experiencing unreliable power supply. As member of the multi-partner EFEWEE research project on gender and energy, I did fieldwork in Purnea district in Bihar in March 2017 along with a team of co-researchers from TERI to examine whether and how the electricity provided through the JEEVIKA programme has contributed to women's empowerment.

Purani Garail and Rustumpur are two of the several un-electrified or under electrified villages in Dhamdaha block of Purnea district where we visited for our field work. Agriculture and associated casual work remain the primary sources of employment for the village community. The relatively stagnant agriculture sector has not been able to generate sufficient employment for a burgeoning population in these villages where the average household size is over eight members. The search for alternative opportunities for livelihoods has driven many male members out of their villages, to migrate to distant places such as Punjab and Delhi. The two selected sites for research are among many selected villages in the district where TERI and BRLPS have been collaborating since 2012 to promote Solar Home Systems (SHS) through women-led SHGs under the 'Jeevika-Lighting a Billion Lives' project. The intervention here mainly consists of providing two LED lamps of 2 W each and a mobile charging point to the willing beneficiary along with a 20 Wp solar panel and a battery for storing energy. The total cost of the SHS is Rs 4500, where the household have to pay an upfront cost of Rs 1000 for the system and the balance amount is paid in instalments.

During our recent visit to these villages, we observed that women in most of the households have memberships in SHGs. Puspa Kumari, who is in her mid-forties and already a grandmother of three, thankfully stated that, "being a didi (members of the SHGs address each other as Didi meaning 'elder sister' -) means a lot to me since I am allowed to step out of the house and attend meetings, and these meetings also provide a platform for women to socialise". Expressing his views on empowerment, the District Project Manager of Jeevika proudly emphasised that, "women are now confidently stepping out of their home without the permission of any male member of the family to attend SHG meetings and also expressing their views without any inhibition". He further added that, "providing SHS has benefited women the most since they are able to cook even after sunset". Hence he indicated that SHG and electricity services have jointly contributed to women's empowerment.

Being able to get SHS is seen to bring important gains. Puspa added gleefully "Now with the solar powered light bulbs, my children spend more time in the evening to complete their school work". Another didi, Sumitra, couldn't' agree more. She further commented, "earlier after dusk boys were loitering around in the area, now they at least open their books and spend some time reading and writing".

To get their mobile phones charged in the past, people in these villages travelled as far as two to three kilometres every other day. Now, with access to solar powered electricity most of the women in the households either own or have access to a mobile and mainly use it to connect with friends and relatives. While these stories of women's enhanced life are optimistic and encouraging, one cannot ignore the flip side of their life - that the SHS did not offer women much scope for productive opportunities. The SHS were designed to provide only basic services keeping in view the costs and the affordability conditions of the users.

By bringing microfinance to their doorsteps, the presence of a programme like Jeevika in rural Bihar has certainly gone a long way in mobilising the rural community, especially the women folk who are otherwise credit-constrained. It has given the women a common platform to voice their needs, requirements, and concerns, which are often considered as a first step towards empowerment. What role, then, has electricity access played in this picture of women's empowerment?

It is sometimes believed that improving women's material conditions through electricity access will "empower" them. Another theory is that access to micro-credit will automatically increase women's bargaining power within the household. However, a deeper look at the impact of the Jeevika programme which combines SHG and access reveals that while it has facilitated children's studies and enhanced women's social life and their decision-making role in certain realms (e.g. the possibility to get credit), it has not necessarily resulted in much empowerment (and hence more gender equality) in terms of women and men's equal rights, access to resources and decision-making power. Such empowerment would probably also require social-cultural changes on a deeper level and in the way the community live their life. To cite an example, while many women here still address their husbands as "malik" (which literally means 'owner'), the husbands denote their wives by their birth names or the names they were provided by their husbands or in-laws after marriage (which again qualifies for another debate!). While interacting with the women folk, Sujata, a young bride remarked, "My malik works as an agricultural labourer in Punjab and I don't miss him badly since we talk daily. All thanks to the mobile charging facility provided under SHS". For sure being able to connect to her husband has been a great and positive change in Sujata's life, yet it does not appear to have changed her position with respect to her husband whom she still addresses as her owner.

The above discussion brings us back to our central question - does electricity (even with micro-credit) empower women or just enhance (benefits accrued from electricity) their life without really empowering them socially, economically and culturally? Beyond doubt electricity has improved the existing living conditions of women and contributed to the overall well-being of the family. But linking electricity to empowerment, without other factors, becomes a difficult proposition in a society where many women remain subservient to their husbands and where social norms regard husbands as the custodians of women's minds and bodies. Male child preference runs high in most households and is exemplified by the fact that the arrival of a male child is celebrated with pomp and show, while the same is not done when a girl child is born. In such a context how can just the presence of electricity at home empower women?

Our previous experiences from fieldwork in Chhattisgarh also indicate that, even when a community retain certain elements of egalitarian practices, especially creating equal opportunities to both men and women and boys and girls, providing electricity for basic services alone may not be an immediate game changer towards women's empowerment (See my other blog - Yet this does not mean the noble goal of increasing access to electricity should be abandoned because it does not conform immediately to our expectations. Rather, it is likely that transformation in gender relations takes time and hinge on more inputs than electricity alone.

The EFEWEE research team is attempting to unbundle the nexus of electricity and womens' empowerment to better understand the underlying mechanisms for electricity's impacts and how these might be enhanced towards overall empowerment. To achieve this we are undertaking a thorough research through field work in rural communities of India, Kenya and Nepal where many women face discriminating norms and practices, and where we question their bargaining power within the households and beyond. We look forward to telling you more about our findings and insights from these countries, so stay tuned!

Social Transformation DivisionThe Energy and Resources Institute
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