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Women, Energy Justice and Community Radio: Harmonizing the Wavelength



 

Energy Review, Vol 5. Issue 01. 2023


More recently, the discourse on just transitions and energy justice has gained prominence, pushing for greening economies in a socially inclusive and gender-transformative manner. This movement offers opportunities to women and men experiencing intersectional forms of discrimination, in terms of climate change and energy access, to be leaders and agents of change in formulating, implementing and harnessing the benefits of sustainable development. For instance, a UN Women study shows that women in local communities are leading innovative approaches to promote gender equality in sectors such as sustainable energy. Other studies also found that gender diversity at the managerial level had stronger mitigating effects on climate change and just energy transition when women from all sections are well-represented in political institutions and civil society organizations.


Among the several pathways for achieving just transition, targeted gender and socially-transformative interventions have additionally resulted in some social and spatial patterns of energy poverty mitigation for the marginalized and the vulnerable, including women. It has been demonstrated that participation at various levels in the energy sector not only forms an important source of employment and economic benefits for women, it further contributed towards household and personal endowments. Conversely, women’s existing activities for sustainable livelihoods could bring out opportunities for energy transition through clean energy inputs, directly or indirectly.

Certain interventions aimed towards just transitions, likewise, give opportunities for changing perceptions and revaluing women’s contributions to households and the community, thereby building confidence about what they can achieve. In 2021, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) with support from Innovate UK launched various renewable energy-based technologies to address energy challenges faced by the people of the hills of Uttarakhand. Centered in Mukteshwar of Nainital district, solar energy systems were deployed in public services to meet specific energy demands. Among these is the solar PV system to support the operation of the Kumaon Vani - 90.4 MHz, a community radio station established by TERI in 2010. Kumaon Vani came in to being with the objective of promoting sustainable development in the local agrarian communities using radio. Gradually, it became popular among the rural communities, reaching around 500 villages in 4 districts of Kumaon and 2 districts of Garhwal region of the state. Kumaon Vani runs for 9 hours a day, comprising a mix of live and recorded content, covering a wide range of themes such as agriculture, water and sanitation, gender, health, government schemes, culture and entertainment. The unique community model of the radio allows people to voice their problems, concerns, queries, achievements, and general feelings, which connects with and relates to the listeners, effectively creating a community without actually meeting anyone. In this entire process, with live interactions among community habitats facilitated by Kumao Vani, the radio subtly contributes to the larger goals of the just transition movement. While it is a radio programme, the messages sent out promote sustainability, whether in agriculture or natural resource management, energy access, and so on, and encourage discussion on sustainable livelihood opportunities. Moreover, the radio is being entirely powered by a solar PV system, with battery back-up, installed as part of the project.


Economically driven migration of men in search of productive employment is one of the predominant issues in the region. The local job market offers limited, poorly paid jobs in the harsh terrain, forcing men to seek employment opportunities elsewhere, while often ‘leaving families behind’. Even when they return home, they have no other sources of employment or income, other than participating in agriculture with their families, and the migration-return cycle repeats. Gendered labour patterns in these areas have been changing in response to the migration of men which is often described as the “feminization of agriculture”. Women are either becoming a larger share of the agricultural labour force or are taking on more management of smallholder farms. The use of a vernacular radio station - Kumaon Vani which uses Kumaoni language to reach local farmers with the information they need, has provided an opportunity to women to not only improve their farm productivity but also to create a peer network, in which they collectively exchange notes and new ideas of farming methods (organic fertilizers, approved seeds, crop insurance, etc.), weather conditions, marketing strategies and success stories. This community radio has successfully helped demystifying the scientific jargon, which disconnected women from a lot of useful information.


Since women themselves participate in the radio programs, it has become more interesting and effective because of the feeling of ownership. Moreover, it has allowed women to interact with each other and other relevant authorities such an agriculture/ horticulture officers, livestock experts and soil scientists among others through a format like talk shows, group discussions, phone-in programs and on-location broadcasts. This kind of interactive mode of agricultural information acts as a critical component for improving small-scale agricultural production consequently leading to improved rural livelihoods and food security.


Hence, women who remain in the village are often active agents making strategic choices for themselves and their families thereby contesting the generalized images of women ‘left behind’ as essentially passive. Women have taken the absence of men in their stride by taking over new responsibilities and challenging conventional gender roles in farming.


The new community radio also attempts to reflect the uniqueness of the local dialect, ethnicities, and culture through musical programs and plays. It has motivated women to enter the world of communication and has strengthened the local bonding and comradeship. It has become a social cohesion tool and has facilitated women and communities to tell their own diverse stories, to show case their talent and became active content creators and contributors of media. This newly build social cohesion expanding beyond certain geographies is helping women to reassess gender roles and address social norms that limit their contribution to undervalued housework. In addition, support from the solar PV system, ensures that the radio runs without interruption, irrespective of weather conditions, keeping the community spirit alive even during isolating harsh winters.


These kinds of interventions though may be geographically nuanced, have successfully articulated disenfranchised women’s voices and promoted participatory communication. Even though the relationship between energy and justice is multifaceted, the distributional and procedural elements in relation to the production and consumption of energy have, in the present case, attempted to be socially and spatially inclusive through this solar-powered community radio initiative. Moreover, the impact and success of this model will inspire the adoption of inclusive approaches in the use of ICTs (information and Communication Technology) to give voice to women and the marginalized and lessen the digital divide.


(Ms. Mini Govindan is a Senior Fellow, Ms. Rashmi Murali is an Associate Fellow, and Mr. N S Prasad is a Senior Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi.) ■□■


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