Bangladesh clean energy shift gives women little chance to shine

Women are not benefitting from Bangladesh’s push to cut carbon emissions, even as they are hardest hit by the impacts of climate change

Md Tahmid ZamiMosabber Hossain, Thomson Reuters Foundation
Published : 22 Nov 2022, 04:14 PM
Updated : 22 Nov 2022, 04:14 PM

When Shefali Khatun separated from her husband, her biggest worry was how she would support her young son and cover all the expenses for their home in central Bangladesh - without a job.

Then she heard about a programme run by a Bangladeshi green energy initiative that teaches women to build and fix solar-power systems. She signed up, despite having no engineering background or experience in the renewable energy sector.

Five years on, Khatun now works making solar equipment and earns about 10,000 taka ($95) a month, enough to meet her family's needs and send her son to school.

"This work changed my fortune and helped me become self-reliant," she said from her home in Mymensingh. "I discovered women, also, can be self-dependent and able to support their families."

Bangladesh's fledgling clean energy industry, which the country says is crucial for increasing access to renewable power and curbing its already low greenhouse gas emissions, is creating thousands of new jobs and, with them, opportunities for more women to join the workforce, say industry experts.

More and more Bangladeshi women are reaching for those opportunities.

A report finalised by the European Union last week said the share of women students enrolled in a masters programme on renewable energy at the University of Dhaka's Institute of Energy, in the capital city, rose from 17% to 27% between 2019 and 2021.

But some climate campaigners and gender experts say Bangladesh's clean energy transition is still leaving women behind, with the government and companies not doing enough to allow women to benefit from the push to cut carbon emissions, even as they are hardest hit by the impacts of climate change.

Bright Green Energy Foundation, the non-governmental organisation that trained Khatun, has helped more than 5,000 women workers acquire skills in manufacturing and repairing equipment for solar home systems over the past decade, said chairman Dipal Barua.

If Bangladesh wants to reach its goal of sourcing 40% of its electricity from renewables by 2041, it needs more women to build up the workforce that installs and maintains the systems supplying much of that clean energy, he added.

"The solar power expansion in rural areas would be unthinkable without involving women," he said.

FEWER WOMEN IN THE FIELD

Efforts to cut carbon emissions have created about 12.7 million jobs in renewables worldwide and that number could nearly quadruple by 2050, according to a report published this year by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

In the solar photovoltaic (PV) sector, the largest employer in the field of renewables, the report said globally women make up 40% of full-time roles involved in developing, building and installing solar energy systems.

But most of those are in administrative jobs - when it comes to positions in the PV sector related to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), less than a third are filled by women.

Bangladesh does not collect gender-segregated data on the make-up of its renewable energy sector, but those working in the industry say they see the same pattern in their companies.

When Chinese renewable energy company Sungrow built a solar power plant last year in Manikganj, near Dhaka, about 200 workers involved in the construction – one-tenth of the workforce – were women, said Imran Chowdhury, head of project development in Bangladesh.

Now that the plant is operational, the share of women on staff has dropped by half, Chowdhury said, with most of them working in project development, the legal department, administration and accounting.

Field-level jobs, such as those involving operation and maintenance, offer more hands-on experience and a higher chance for promotion, but there are fewer available and they require skills that most women applicants lack, he said.

That is an issue Arif Raihan Maahi is trying to tackle as chief impact officer for consulting firm Devtale Partners, which trains women engineers looking to enter the green energy sector and encourages them to take up technical and leadership roles.

For many women, family responsibilities and limited formal education often mean they do not have the experience or time for those roles, said Maahi.

"And when their careers stall, women eventually lose their motivation and momentum," he said.

POLICY SOLUTIONS

Solar power is only one area of Bangladesh's green energy transition where women struggle with limited job opportunities.

Jatri Rani Barman was looking for a job that would earn her a steady income and fit around her family life.

She knew driving an "easy bike", an electric three-wheeled taxi, offered a solution - it was flexible, well-paid work that did not require the physical strength needed to pull a manually operated rickshaw around all day.

But at first, Barman, 32, faced resistance from friends and family, who told her it was no job for a woman.

She decided to do it anyway, and is now the only female easy bike driver in her northwestern town of Sunamganj.

"In the beginning, most people discouraged me from working as a driver," she said. "Now that they know me, they support my work."

For Sharmind Neelormi, an expert on climate and gender at Jahangirnagar University, the problem starts at the top, with the government yet to grasp the importance of getting more women involved in the push to curb global warming.

Climate experts have long said the impacts of climate change disproportionately affect women, who due to their social and economic status suffer more losses during extreme weather events and find it harder to avoid and adapt to the damage caused.

In Bangladesh, nearly 60% of women are engaged in agriculture, making their livelihoods highly vulnerable to floods, droughts and storms, according to a report published in August by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and U.N. Women.

Bangladesh's latest climate action plan recognises that addressing women's needs is key to the success of adaptation measures such as subsidising crop insurance or building barriers to protect farms from flooding, said Neelormi, a lead author on the IUCN report.

But, she added, the government is not doing enough to look at how measures to reduce planet-heating emissions - especially expanding clean power - could provide livelihoods for women.

Energy is often seen as a technical issue, but the social and gender aspects should also be considered, Neelormi said.

"Unless you specifically design renewable energy initiatives keeping women's needs in mind, it will not create sufficient impact," she said.

Farah Anzum, an independent researcher on climate and gender, said the first step for clean energy companies and carbon-cutting projects is to not only recruit more women, but also ensure they have equal pay, flexible working hours and mechanisms to address harassment or unequal treatment.

"If we provide a safe, enabling space for women, they can take up the jobs and opportunities that clean energy makes possible," she said.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher