The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 7 May 2013
Although the reality for most of Africa is that women have for centuries acted as the invisible backbone of domestic subsistence, few countries have put policies in place that will harness the development potential of women.
But without access to basic utilities, such as water, electricity and telecommunications, Africa’s developmental aspirations will remain, but a dream. The empowerment of women must therefore, not only focus on educating the girl-child, but guaranteeing equal access to sustainable energy.
In the West African sub-region – Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Ivory Coast, through the Mano River Union, have woken up to the desperate need for public policy shift towards greater access to energy for women. This is the agenda of a three-day conference, which opened earlier today at Tokeh Beach in Freetown.
The conference is organised by the Mano River Union, bringing delegates together to discuss ‘women’s economic empowerment through energy access’.
The Conference, which is one of the series of activities marking the 40th anniversary of the signing of the MRU treaty, will be attended by ministers of energy and gender from Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The official commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the MRU during the conference, will indicate the renewed commitment of the MRU leadership to consider women in development as it relates to their access to clean energy.
The Government of Sierra Leone, the Mano River Union (MRU), the ECOWAS Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the African Development Bank (AfDB) are jointly organizing this important event.
The conference is a follow-up to the hugely successful ECOWAS High Level Energy Forum, held from 29 to 31 October 2012 in Accra, Ghana, which saw the adoption of the ECOWAS Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Policies by the ECOWAS Ministers.
The policies envisage that by 2014, Member States would have developed and adopted their own “gender-sensitive” national renewable energy policies, which will contribute to achieving the regional ECOWAS targets.
A sub-regional working group on women and sustainable energy is also expected to be set up at the Freetown conference, which will also be attended by the ECOWAS Commissioners for Infrastructure and Gender as well as key experts from the region.
The outcome will be presented at the forthcoming Vienna Energy Forum on 29th May 2013.
The Freetown conference will feature a presentation on the status of gender mainstreaming in the energy sector in the MRU sub-region and offer an opportunity for a practical training on gender mainstreaming in renewable energy and energy efficiency policies and projects.
This should equip participants with the necessary skills to contribute in the development of the sub-regional Action Plan on Women’s Economic Empowerment through Energy Access.
The conference will create a platform for the establishment of a sub-regional working group on women and sustainable energy in the MRU.
Countries of the MRU recognize that women’s access to sustainable energy is critical to the development of the sub-region’s economy, as well as to the success and sustainability of the SE4ALL initiative and the MDGs.
They are also committed to promoting the full participation of women as key stakeholders at all levels of decision-making, for proper integration of gender perspectives in the planning, development and implementation of all energy-related dialogues, initiatives and policies aimed at promoting sustainable energy for all.
With a population estimated at 40 million in 2010 and a gross domestic product (GDP) of approximately $30 billion, the countries of the MRU like most countries of sub-Saharan African, are rich in natural resources but have high incidence of energy and income poverty.
Established in 1973, the MRU has served as a platform for active collaboration and mutual assistance to accelerate economic, social, technical and scientific development of the countries bounded by this union.
One prominent area in which the MRU has worked extensively to foster development is in gender mainstreaming and equity in Africa; particularly for the empowerment of women who are seen to be lagging behind their male counterparts in most socio-economic indicators.
Speaking at the opening ceremony today, president Koroma of Sierra Leone warmly welcomed the delegates, saying: “We feel much honoured to be hosts of this seminal Mano River Union Conference on Energy and Gender. I am glad that we are focusing on Women’s empowerment through access to energy.
“Women’s Empowerment and Energy Access are two major national priorities for me and my Government. So, when in October 2012, my Special Adviser on Gender and Women’ Affairs in consultation with the Minister of Energy briefed and advised that the Government takes the global leadership in hosting this very significant and historical conference, I immediately gave my approval.
“Over the next three days, you will hear about successful case studies from the MRU and other ECOWAS countries. You will hear from our ‘Barefoot Women Solar Engineers’ here in Sierra Leone who, through their Barefoot College have demonstrated a clear case for the positive benefits of energy access and women’s economic empowerment.
“Access to energy has created multiple economic opportunities for these women and their communities. I encourage you to visit the college during your stay.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, to ensure that women’s voices and priorities are not only heard, but also acted upon, my Government has made Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment a priority pillar in the Agenda for Prosperity – our core national development programme during my second term.
“Under this pillar there is a specific cluster on Women’s Access to Energy especially new, renewable and efficient energy. We believe that access to efficient energy empowers women, ensures productivity, enhances family health and improves the quality of life of a people.
“Our women in the MRU, I salute you. I salute you all because in the midst of challenges over generations, you have persevered, you have showed commitment, and you have continued to keep our families going in the best directions possible.
“During our civil wars in the Mano River Basin, you stood for peace; you dragged men unto the negotiating table; and commanded the nations to embrace democracy.
“Today you are again blazing a new trail. With great energy, you are deliberating on energy; with powerful voices, you are discussing empowerment; and you are again bringing to the table – matters of domineering importance.
“Only an unwise man would dare not listen to the determined voices of women. I, as President of Sierra Leone will listen; and I will act on your recommendations. This is the wise course of action; it is the better way to go if we are to become truly modern nations.
“We have heard from the Executive Director of the Environmental Agency. Today, we are cutting down old and young trees to provide cooking energy, heating, lighting, food preservation and many more for our basic needs.
“Women’s time burden in accessing energy is a hindrance to their health, education, financial and social well-being Cutting of trees has negative environmental effects: climate change, global warming, desertification and limited water resources.
“We therefore need to collectively address this challenge. That is why I am truly looking forward to some of the interventions that women in the MRU will propose on this issue.
“Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, as we continue to create an enabling environment for women’s energy needs, we should explore all avenues to accessing all forms of energy, including clean and renewable energy.
“Energy education must be enhanced to ensure that wise choices could be made on the different energy alternatives available to women. Women should be involved in all aspect of the energy discourse to ensure proper integration of their perspectives.
“This is why we look forward to this gathering with great expectations. Our Governments in the MRU are awaiting the outcome of this conference to ensure that desired and appropriate strategies are adopted to fulfil women’s long-standing aspirations for freedom from the burden of firewood, and from the hazards of too much smoke in their kitchens.
“The time has come to assert these aspirations. We must act now. Promoting women’s access should be prominent amongst this generation’s contribution to the freedom and development of our nations.
“Let me conclude by extending my profound thanks and appreciation to our development partners, especially: African Development Bank, UNIDO, ECREEE, Global Environmental Facility, Africell and all those others who have contributed to the successful hosting of this conference.
“My special gratitude goes to the MRU Secretary-General and the Secretariat for the leadership in organizing this conference and for supporting the Government of Sierra Leone to be the proud host of the first women’s access to energy conference globally.
“I count on your continuous support and commitment on this very important programme.
Once more on behalf of my Government and people of Sierra Leone, I welcome you all and I wish you all very fruitful and constructive deliberations. God bless the MRU.”