The celebration of love on Valentine’s Day just didn’t have the same ring to it this year. Instead of the usual roses, hearts, chocolates and romantic sonnets, a somber mood of insecurity and injustice hung over the air. There was a visible sense of rage against the violence against women.
Across the world, people have taken to the streets to demand a world free of violence against women. In Delhi, thousands have steadily held vigil in support of the young girl who was brutally gang-raped. In Kathmandu, demonstrators have occupied Baluwatar to protest the robbery and rape of a woman traveler in the airport. In Cape Town, a radio station sounds a chime every four minutes to remind listeners of the statistical frequency of a rape in South Africa.
These movements will hopefully all endure and galvanize bolder action towards a freer, fairer and secure world for women.
In the meantime though, another pervasive form of violence against women continues quietly without an uproar.
We see the violence every day. We can feel it, smell it and when it is particularly thick in the air, we can almost touch it. It comes from the most basic of daily functions in our homes—cooking.
Indoor air pollution caused by the smoke of traditional cookstoves and open fires used for cooking and heating kills two million people every year. Sustained exposure to such smoke contributes to acute respiratory infection, chronic lung diseases, lung cancer, heart diseases, pregnancy related complications along with other health and vision problems. It is the fifth worst risk factor for diseases in developing countries.
In Nepal, 22 million people, or 80 percent of the population, live with indoor air pollution from cooking fires. Almost 10,000 lose their lives every year as a result.
The impacts are disproportionately on women. They are almost always the ones toiling over the fire preparing the meals. Children, more often girls than boys, clustering around their mothers in the kitchen or in the homes are equally at risk. Men, as it turns out, typically have better things to do, like go out for a job or loiter about in the front yard waiting for their food to be cooked.
The disproportionate impacts on women are widely documented. Studies have found, for instance, that Nepali non-smoking women exposed to biomass smoke from cooking have respiratory diseases comparable to those of heavy male smokers.
The World Health Organization estimates that indoor air pollution accounts for an estimated 1.5 million premature deaths annually among women and children.
These premature deaths are almost always of poor women and children, typically in rural areas, who lack the access to modern energy sources for cooking.
The impact on women from prolonged exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves and open fires is no less abusive than the rape in Delhi, South Africa and Kathmandu—perhaps not as gruesome but equally abusive. If a chime were to sound every time smoke from a traditional cook stove prematurely kills a woman or a child, it would ring once every 21 seconds.
The only reason this hasn’t enraged our collective conscience is because the woman’s place in the kitchen is socially condoned.
The fact that cooking remains hazardous even after years of human civilization tells a poor story of our resolve to build a better world for women. Within a few decades after its invention, the internet now reaches over 2.5 billion people. But several hundred centuries after humankind discovered fire and began to cook, 3 billion people, or just under half of world’s population, still toil over the same basic hearth for their food. Humanity may have come a long way technologically but moved remarkably little on progress.
The biggest tragedy of the premature deaths from traditional cookstoves and open fires is that they can all be avoided.
A wide variety of solutions have emerged. They involve a combination of clean cook stove technologies, a wider range of cooking fuel options and changes in behavioral patterns. If implemented, these solutions could substantially reduce the health, environmental and socio-economic impacts in many different ways.
Cleaner cookstoves reduce indoor air pollution, significantly mitigating most of the negative health impacts. These cookstoves integrate better efficiency, allow for a wider use of fuel choices, promote better practices and reduce the associated fire hazards.
Cleaner cookstoves also reduce the time needed to collect fuel. This leaves more time for gainful employment or other productive activity. It reduces the dangers, particularly to women and children, from foraging around for firewood, agricultural waste or biomass sources.
Cleaner cookstoves empower women simply by making their kitchens safer and providing them more time away from the kitchen. But there could also be broader gains. In some instances, it could ease the pressure on local environments and biomass sources, which otherwise provide the daily source of fuel for most of the traditional cookstoves.
Though many of the solutions are simple, they are not always free or cheap. Even simple mud-baked improved cookstoves in Nepal cost between Rs 500-Rs 2,000, with another Rs 700 thrown in by the Government for technical assistance in building those stoves. More advanced metal cookstoves can cost upward of Rs 7,000, though the government subsidises 50 percent of the capital cost.
But Nepal is trying.
It has outlined an ambitious goal to ensure that all households have clean cookstoves. Last year the government announced a program to build about half a million improved cooking stoves over the next five years. That’s a sharp increase from a dismal past performance. About 620,000 improved cooking stoves have been built since 1999. Last month, the Prime Minister went further. He announced that by 2017 all Nepali kitchens would have clean cook stoves and be smoke free.
The Prime Minister was immediately met with derision for announcing a plan that seemed impossible to achieve. Many accused him of being outrageous. Some even suggested that he must have been smoking something, not necessarily of the cooking stove kind.
Since the Prime Minister’s announcement, the government has offered no specific programs to back his commitment. Whether the Prime Minister merely misspoke remains unclear. The challenge of making all Nepali kitchens smoke-free within the next five years is daunting, but not impossible.
One thing is certain. The government can’t do it on its own, no matter how many times the Prime Minister announces it, accidentally or with intent. The government can’t do it on its own, no matter how hard it tries.
Making kitchens smoke-free requires new collaborative approaches. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, for instance, is spearheading a multi-national effort to take clean cookstoves to 100 million households by 2020. It works with a wide range of partners addressing constraints to production and deployment through market based solutions.
As the work of the Alliance illustrates, everyone needs to pitch in: governments, business, non-profits, media, writers, film makers, artists, teachers, doctors, everyone.
Most importantly, it needs all of us to understand that woman cannot continue to be subjected to this silent abuse in the kitchen. It needs our collective rage.
The author is a consultant on energy and environment