Women Queues for Kerosene

…government efforts will be more popular if reform is designed so that it can credibly state that: i) women, among other vulnerable groups, are protected; and ii) that alternative, more effective energy access policies are being implemented using subsidy savings.

“What has gender got to do with fuel subsidy policies and reforms? What has energy got to do with women?” These are the sort of questions we are often asked during policy dialogues with government officials and in our public advocacy and social interactions on digital platforms.

These questions are surprising because some major national energy policies already establish strong connections between gender and access to energy, and outline detailed recommendations for effecting the transition to cleaner fuels. In particular, the revised National Energy Policy of 2013 recognises the health implications and adverse social burdens that inefficient cooking fuels place on women. Under that policy framework, developing appropriate technologies to use instead of fuel wood and fossil-based fuels is one of the short-term strategies of the Nigerian government to improve energy efficiency and independence. So, does fuel subsidy reform actually affect men and women differently, warranting a targeted policy response to correct the ingrained disparities? The answer, we think, is a resounding YES!

…with women as half of the Nigerian population, as our nation’s mothers, it is also in the best interest of the country as a whole, bringing improved outcomes for health, education and economic competitiveness across the board—and thus long run prosperity for all Nigerians.

Answering this recurring question about the gendered impacts of fuel subsidy reforms is very important, especially now that the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is seriously considering sustainable reform measures to resolve the challenge of perennial fuel scarcity in Nigeria. Women are already worse off than men in many areas such as education and income and security. Without adequate preparation and compensation, reform can entrench existing inequalities. Is this about improving women’s access to energy supply and resource benefits? Yes, undoubtedly. But with women as half of the Nigerian population, as our nation’s mothers, it is also in the best interest of the country as a whole, bringing improved outcomes for health, education and economic competitiveness across the board—and thus long run prosperity for all Nigerians.

So, how exactly do fuel subsidy reforms affect gender?

Subsidy reform will increase petroleum and kerosene prices. This will have three major impacts: The first is income effect. When life gets so expensive due to higher energy prices, it significantly reduces households’ effective incomes as a greater portion of expenditure will be spent on buying petroleum products or paying for other goods like food whose costs have risen because of inflation. Due to cultural, social and economic limitations, women often have less say on decisions on household expenditure than men. This sort of resource reallocation will potentially deepen inequality. As such, women are more likely to lose out in the wake of reforms.

Inequalities are most pronounced in poorer households. It is important to emphasise this: increased living costs hit women harder than men, particularly in poor households. The 2013 Demographic and Health Survey finds in Nigeria’s poorest households, 44 percent of women are unemployed (vs. 19 percent men); 93.1 percent of married working women earn less than their husbands; and women state that major purchases are mainly made by men in 62 percent of households, compared to 32 percent made jointly and 6 percent mainly by women. In addition, data from the Nigeria National Bureau of Statistics (2009) shows that men are more than twice as likely to secure finance compared to women.

The second is an energy use effect. This drives households to consume cheaper energy alternatives because they can’t afford as much as before. For instance, rather than petroleum, people might use less costly transport services or use less transport; and for kerosene, consumers may use more biomass for lighting and cooking.

In its considered reform plans, the government should ensure that poor women can continue to afford modern cooking fuel. Kerosene is particularly prone to diversion and can also contribute towards some respiratory diseases, so it is recommended that the government use subsidy savings to promote clean cooking stoves and/or LPG. This is already a goal of the draft National Energy Policy 2013.

A shift to biomass in particular has worse effects on women than men as affirmed by the revised National Energy Policy of 2013. Generally, it is women in Nigeria who collect fuel and cook. More biomass use means increased time spent on fuel collection: arduous work that could be better spent on making a living. It also means increased indoor air pollution and associated health problems. The traditional use of biomass is a major cause of respiratory disease. The World Health Organisation (WHO) finds that smoke from firewood and traditional biomass is the third highest killer of women in Nigeria, after malaria. Research in Ekiti State finds the following prevalence of respiratory symptoms among women using biomass fuels versus those using non-biomass fuels: cough (13.7 percent vs. 3.7 percent); wheezing (8.7 percent vs. 2.8 percent); chest pain (7.5 percent vs. 1.9 percent); breathlessness (11.8 percent vs. 6.5 percent); and chronic bronchitis (10.6 percent vs. 2.8 percent).

The third is the energy supply effect. This is actually a positive impact: higher prices do not only have negative impacts, but can yield positive outcomes too. For instance, higher energy prices will stop black markets from making money from the subsidy by buying up the supply and causing shortages. This will improve energy supply and increase women’s access to modern fuels. This ought to help at least partially compensate for income and energy use effects. But it is a medium-term impact and may require other supply barriers to be addressed in order to take full effect. In its considered reform plans, the government should ensure that poor women can continue to afford modern cooking fuel. Kerosene is particularly prone to diversion and can also contribute towards some respiratory diseases, so it is recommended that the government use subsidy savings to promote clean cooking stoves and/or LPG. This is already a goal of the draft National Energy Policy 2013. Reforms should be implemented to cluster benefits in Nigeria, i.e. establishing cooking stove production domestically; and using Nigeria’s LPG domestic production capacity.

To what extent do fuel subsidy reforms affect women differently from men?

There is currently no good data on the exact extent to which reform will affect women. This is because large shares of Nigeria’s petroleum and kerosene subsidies are captured by black markets. Many households pay above official prices for subsidised fuels, and therefore may see little actual cost increases. Nonetheless, in most countries it is typically the case that—no matter how inefficient—a share of benefits does reach households and this transfer is relatively large as a share of the poorest households’ total incomes. In addition, reform normally causes inflation, increasing the prices of other essential goods such as food and transport services. In the absence of contrary evidence, we call on the government to adopt a “precautionary principle”, assuming that poor households and women will see living costs increase and need to be protected.

For all near-future reforms, the government should seek to choose compensation policies that cluster benefits on women. This means providing compensation policies, like health and education support, that are focused on women’s needs, as well as squarely addressing the energy access problem through local solutions: establishing cooking stove production domestically; and using Nigeria’s LPG production capacity.

Spaces for Change is collaborating with a global research organisation, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (www.iisd.org/gsi) to conduct a multi-year research project to identify the impacts of fossil-fuel subsidy reform upon women in Nigeria. A rigorous literature review preceding this study provides strong basis to infer that reform will likely reduce household expenditure on women’s needs and reduce women’s access to modern energy sources, affecting their economic opportunities and respiratory health. Reform can have positive effects if it leads to improved energy supply systems (increasing energy access), but this is likely to take place over the medium-term. For all near-future reforms, the government should seek to choose compensation policies that cluster benefits on women. This means providing compensation policies, like health and education support, that are focused on women’s needs, as well as squarely addressing the energy access problem through local solutions: establishing cooking stove production domestically; and using Nigeria’s LPG production capacity. Any spill-over benefits (e.g. employment creation) can be clustered on women.

How can the government present a more acceptable stance on subsidy reforms?

In the words of Patrick Obahiagbon, it is already visible to the blind and audible to the deaf that fossil-fuel subsidies have failed—it’s time for something better. The government needs to be clear it is not reforming subsidies in order to save money but in order to make people’s lives better and plug the gaps that allow waste and corruption to thrive. Reform should not be about taking something away; it is about giving something that works, particularly making clean fuel affordable for the poorest in Nigeria. The government should be able to explain the benefits of this, particularly on women, with respect to time saved and improved health. It should point to other growing countries that have done the same, e.g. Brazil, Peru and Ghana.

Reform should not be about taking something away; it is about giving something that works, particularly making clean fuel affordable for the poorest in Nigeria. The government should be able to explain the benefits of this, particularly on women, with respect to time saved and improved health.

The government should also design policy and prepare communications capacity so that it is able to tackle problems responsibly and effectively. For example, clean cookstoves are often criticised because they are imported and this encourages production and technical expertise to be retained abroad. In some cases, too, cookstoves promoted by government have not been properly aligned with cultural concerns and local needs. Safety concerns often dominate news about LPG. Policy should be designed to be robust to such concerns, e.g. ensuring cookstoves are produced domestically with spill-over benefits; that promoted cookstoves are chosen following a careful needs assessment; that LPG meets high safety standards. This will allow officials to quickly respond to concerns. The Jigawa State government’s cookstove scheme and the Kike cookstove by Carbon Credit Network are examples of locally-produced cookstoves that could be investigated.

And finally, government efforts will be more popular if reform is designed so that it can credibly state that: i) women, among other vulnerable groups, are protected; and ii) that alternative, more effective energy access policies are being implemented using subsidy savings.

Victoria Ohaeri is the executive director of Spaces for Change (www.spacesforchange.org), a policy advocacy organization based in Lagos, Nigeria. She can be reached on victoria@spacesforchange.org. Christopher Beaton is a research officer with the Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI, www.iisd.org/gsi) of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). He can be reached on cbeaton@iisd.org. For the more information about fossil-fuel subsidies in Nigeria, see the GSI’s publication A Citizens’ Guide to Energy Subsidies in Nigeria.