SEATTLE, Washington — For many women living in South Asia, access to safe, clean energy sources is a daily challenge. To help women escape this energy poverty, a new initiative from the World Bank is working to bring more women into the power sector. The program is called the WePOWER network, and the South Asia Energy and Social Development Unit of the World Bank launched it in February 2018.
About the WePOWER Network
As of September 2020, the WePOWER network now has 24 partners, which includes 13 energy companies in South Asia, according to Maria Beatriz Orlando, Lead Social Development Specialist for WePOWER, in an interview with The Borgen Project. In the span of one year — from February 2019 to February 2020 — WePOWER partners directly impacted 10,836 women and girls through recruitment, mentorship programs, STEM education outreach and professional development workshops.
The WePOWER network has even higher goals for 2020, comprising 1,300 activities that will benefit over 20,000 women and girls. WePOWER is especially trying to integrate women into the energy sector because women typically utilize energy services in the household.
“Where women undertake the disproportionate share of time-intensive household work such as cooking, cleaning and collecting fuel, they stand to benefit more from household energy access,” said Romy Listo, Ph.D. Candidate and member of the Energy & Poverty Research Group at The University of Queensland, Australia, in an interview with The Borgen Project.
Even though women are the most common beneficiaries of energy sector products, men still dominate the industry around the world. “There’s a disjuncture between who household energy has benefits for and impacts on, and who makes up the companies and utilities providing it, and profiting from it,” Listo said.
How WePower is Supporting Women in the Energy Sector in South Asia
WePOWER supports women throughout South Asia, including partnerships with energy companies in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, among other countries. It is important to educate women about the energy sector, which they benefit from, day-to-day. However, it is also critical to social development that women have tangible impacts on this sector. “Hiring and involving women in technical work such as engineering positions in energy companies, challenge the social norms that women’s roles are in care work, or in the home and that can have an influence across society,” Listo said.
Women in STEM and the energy sector not only benefit the individual women but also their entire households and communities. Women tend to “reinvest” 9% of their income into their family and the local community in comparison to a 30% to 40% rate of reinvestment from men, according to ENERGIA, an international network on gender and sustainable energy, committed to women’s economic empowerment and policy influencing.
A diverse workforce also bolsters the economy, by boosting productivity and efficiency. The South Asian energy sector is a burgeoning economy, and “the sector’s growth and modernization require the involvement of top women talent,” Orlando said.
Despite the success of the WePOWER network so far, further integration of women into the energy sector is not without its challenges. The energy sector — like most STEM careers — is dominated by men, because of social barriers and norms which prohibit women from excelling in these fields, Listo said. These obstacles include sexual harassment, expectations for women to engage in unpaid work at home and unequal pay.
Partnership with Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board (BREB)
One of WePOWER’s newest partnerships is with Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board (BREB), which serves 28 million people in the country, and provides energy to almost all of rural Bangladesh. BREB has 30,000 employees with around 5,000 female staff, including nine female deputy general managers, according to Orlando. Although Bangladesh has made strides to increase its female labor force participation, only 36% of its labor force is female, which is “still considered too low,” by the World Bank’s standards, Orlando said.
However, since BREB joined the WePOWER network, the rate of female employee participation has increased by 10% through recruitment, pensions and other benefits. “My colleagues and I feel encouraged and empowered by the opportunity to serve our country – a bright and shining Bangladesh,” Ivy Nahar Tisha, an assistant engineer with the BREB, said in an interview with the World Bank.
As one of WePOWER’s initiatives, Tisha helped create a daycare center at the BREB’s headquarters, lessening the burden on mothers in the workforce. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world are transitioning to working from home. This creates a whole new set of obstacles for women in the workforce, like finding the balance between work and domestic expectations.
As a result, in May 2020, WePOWER hosted a virtual discussion titled “COVID-19 and its Impact on Women Professionals in the Energy Sector,” which focused on how the organization needs to adapt during the pandemic to best serve its female constituents.
The WePOWER network will continue to empower and advocate for women in the energy sector and work to combat energy poverty — even amidst the new challenges that the pandemic poses.
– Laney Pope
Photo: The World Bank