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Economic Empowerment and Self-Reliance

New Global Initiative Will Provide Clean Cookstoves for Refugee Women

I met a Somali woman in the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya who summed up the problem: “You cannot divorce food from fuel,” she said, “they are completely interlinked. One-hundred bags of food is useless without firewood.” For millions of families around the world, cooking fuel is a critical, daily concern, with serious health and safety implications.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put this issue in the spotlight this week when she announced the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which aims to provide 100 million fuel-efficient stoves to people in developing countries by 2020. These stoves will make a crucial difference in the lives of the people who receive them—especially those who have been displaced by armed conflict and natural disasters.

At the Women’s Refugee Commission, we have been dedicated for the last five years to making sure that displaced women have both safe access to cooking fuel and safe stoves to cook with. Women and girls risk rape and sexual assault when they leave the relative safety of refugee camps to gather firewood, which they use to cook the food provided by relief agencies – usually rice, grains or beans, but always items that have to be cooked in order to be eaten. As nearby trees are chopped down to use as firewood, women and girls must walk farther and farther to collect cooking fuel, increasing their vulnerability and causing massive environmental degradation. Burning wood on open stoves also produces toxic smoke, exposing the women and children who spend hours near the fires to respiratory and other illnesses, causing countless burns and house fires and spewing black carbon into the atmosphere.

We are currently working with the World Food Programme (WFP) on its SAFE Stoves Initiative, which aims to ensure that six million displaced women and school children in Haiti, Kenya, Sudan,  Uganda and elsewhere have safe access to both cooking fuel and stoves.  My trip to Ifo refugee camp in July was part of this effort. I joined WFP staff members on visits to Dadaab and Kakuma camps in Kenya to talk to refugees about their fuel needs and cooking methods. Many people in the camps had received fuel-efficient stoves, and we wanted to assess the practical impact the stoves were having.

When we met with the refugees at Ifo, they stressed the difficulty of obtaining firewood, and reported frequently having to sell some of their food rations to get money to buy wood for cooking. When they can’t afford to buy firewood, women must walk four to five hours to collect it. “When there’s no money and your child is crying of hunger, you have no option but to go to the bush,” one woman said.  She told me that firewood collection was the riskiest part of their day, explaining, “When you leave in the morning, you never know if you’ll come back safe.”

The women that I talked to stressed that fuel-efficient stoves significantly reduced the amount of time they spent collecting firewood. “If we don’t use a fuel-efficient stove, the wood we collect will only last two to three days,” explained the chairwoman of Ifo camp. “With a stove, it might last up to seven days.” She added, though, that many people in the camp had not received stoves, especially the thousands of new families arriving in the camp every week from war-torn Somalia. The agency implementing the stove program in the Dadaab camps estimated that only about 50 percent of all families had yet received a stove.

The new Global Alliance on Clean Cookstoves is an important step on the road to providing a basic tool that can improve the lives of the women I met in Dadaab and countless others like them around the world. We applaud the U.S. for its initial support of $50 million and hope other governments and donors will commit their support to this critical initiative as well.

And as a member of the Alliance, the Women’s Refugee Commission is further stressing the importance of ensuring not only that women receive clean cookstoves, but that they also have safe access to the fuel required to use these stoves.

Economic Empowerment and Self-Reliance