The myth that sustainable cookstoves prevent sexual assault
A common myth among development organizations across the world is that energy efficient cook stoves are a good measure to prevent sexual assault and/or rape in underprivileged communities in the global South.
The rationale is that women in these communities -- both in Bangladesh and across the developing world -- tend to be responsible for collecting natural resources as part of their domestic duties. Whether this means collecting fresh drinking water or firewood, women often have to travel long distances away from their homes. Development organizations argue that these trips are often unsafe, and increase the likelihood of sexual assault.
As such, these organizations have proposed providing firewood, energy efficient stoves, and rainwater harvesting as technologies that will reduce sexual assault in these communities -- as women and girls will no longer have to make these long trips.
Dr Samer Abdelnour, assistant professor at Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, describes this situation in his 2015 peer-reviewed paper, “The Cookstove-Rape Prevention Myth and the Limits of Techno-saviorism.” He explains how aid agencies at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya decided to provide women and girls firewood directly, so they would not have to make trips out of the camp, where they would often be faced with armed men ready to shoot them if they objected to being raped.
While such interventions may seem “logical”, it is important to consider they do not actually address the root causes of sexual assault; and they put responsibility on the victims as opposed to the perpetrators.
As Dr Abdelnour explains: “Stoves are not techno-superheroes; cooking with better stoves will not enable poor women to resolve the structural causes of poverty, violence or climate change”.
Sexual assault does not occur because of a lack of energy for illumination, or because of the hardships of fetching firewood/freshwater. Sexual assault is a complex gendered social issue that occurs across socioeconomic class, arising from a combination of interlocking factors that put women and girls at risk wherever they go.
Such interventions are a little more than short term solutions, addressing the symptom, not the cause. In the long term, they do very little to actually ensure gender equality. Whether in a refugee camp in Kenya or a rural village in Bangladesh, sustainable development will not be achieved as long as the real reasons behind gendered violence are overlooked.
Nadine Naguib Suliman is currently completing her PhD under the department of resource economics and environmental sociology at the University of Alberta, Canada.