March 4. 2024. 6:08

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Women more likely to fall into energy poverty, EU Parliament warns

Women have always been among those most affected by energy poverty, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the energy crisis have exacerbated inequalities and widened the gender divide, according to the European Parliament’s committee on women’s rights.

Already in 2021, well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused energy prices to soar, experts had warned that women were more likely to fall into energy poverty than men.

“Poverty has a female face,” wrote Michaela Kauer, the director of the Brussels office of the City of Vienna, in an opinion piece published on EURACTIV.

This doesn’t happen by accident. The gender pay gap in the EU in 2020 was 13% and has only changed minimally over the previous decade. This means that women earn on average 13% less per hour than men. In 2019, the gender pension gap of EU citizens aged over 65 was close to 30%.

“Many women have lower average incomes, they work part-time, they also work in low-paid or precarious forms of employment. Many women work without pay, for example, in the household,” explained Robert Biedroń, a Polish socialist MEP who chairs the European Parliament’s committee on women’s rights and gender equality.

“The consequences of energy prices on individuals and small businesses but also deindustrialisation, unemployment, and recession are disproportionately affecting women because of their already lower participation in the labour market and existing gender gaps in many sectors,” Biedroń told representatives at a committee meeting on Wednesday (1 March).

Energy poverty does not only have an economic dimension, said Katharina Habersbrunner from Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF), a charity. It also has a physiological aspect – women are more sensitive to extreme temperatures – and a sociocultural component, she explained.

This means women are most likely to be caregivers for children and elderly family members, thus spending more time at home. The vast majority of caregiving in the EU – an estimated 75% – is done for free by women who look after sick or needy relatives without being paid.

Single parenthood is strongly gendered, with almost half (48%) of lone mothers and a third (32%) of lone fathers at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Women in particular are affected as they make up almost 85% of all one-parent families in the EU, according to a WECF report.

The reality is even worse for women and girls living in rural areas and in least developed countries, according to Laurence Gilloise, director of the United Nations’ Women Brussels Office.

3.2 million people worldwide, disproportionately women and children, die prematurely every year from illnesses attributable to household air pollution caused by cooking and heating with inefficient and polluting fuels and technologies, a UN report released last September shows.

Rising energy prices mean a return to the use of biomass for fuel, with “disproportionate impacts on women’s and girls’ unpaid care and domestic workloads, health and livelihoods,” according to the study.

“This does not only hinder the development of their full potential and the enjoyment of a range of human rights, including access to education, and the right to work, but also contributes to increasing their risk of being exposed to gender-based violence and reduces the access to quality healthcare,” Gilloise said.

The female face of energy poverty is still invisible

Women are more likely to live in energy poverty, something that needs to be reflected in EU policy as it rolls out its renovation wave, writes Michaela Kauer.

Need for inclusive solutions

To address gender issues, new financial instruments and an increased EU budget are needed, according to Left MEP Dimítrios Papadimoulis, vice-president of the European Parliament responsible for gender equality and diversity.

Papadimoulis warned against dealing with gender issues without a dedicated fund.

“This is what we have to do regarding the gender issues, not to scrape the bottom of the barrel in order to see what has been left over from other policies in order to deal with that. It is impossible for us to deal with these social challenges with an EU budget of the order of 1% of the total,” he said.

The transition to equality can only be achieved through the full and equal participation of women and girls in leadership and decision-making processes, to ensure that their needs and perspectives are considered, according to Gillois.

“Significant evidence shows that energy interventions that take into account women’s needs and priorities are more likely to have a positive impact on addressing household and community energy poverty, and on gender equality more broadly,” she said.

Another aspect is to provide training and job opportunities to women in the energy sector, underlined Ana Margarida Luís De Sousa, an energy engineer at the University of Lisbon .

In renewable energy, women make up 32% of the renewable energy workforce, compared to 22% in the energy sector overall, but they are concentrated in lower-paying non-technical positions.

“Encouraging women to pursue careers in the energy sector can help to address gender disparities. This can be achieved through education and vocational training programmes that target women,” De Sousa said during the debate.

This calls for a paradigm shift, as unconscious gender bias and discrimination are being carried over from the fossil fuel sector into the renewable energy sector, Habersbrunner added.

“Women play a meaningful role as critical agents of change along multiple segments of the energy value chain as energy users, business owners, technicians, service providers, and policymakers,” she told EURACTIV.

For this reason, new multidisciplinary and participatory methods must be implemented to ensure women contribute to energy poverty alleviation, she said.

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