By Anita Shankar, Associate Scientist, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health; Naira Kalra, PhD Candidate, Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health; Maryse Labriet, Director, Eneris Environment Energy Consultants; and Luis Garcia, Program Manager, Plan International Spain

Violence, armed conflict, and natural disasters have displaced more than 65 million individuals worldwide from their homes. For the individuals living in post-conflict settings, even the most basic aspects of daily living, like cooking, can be a challenge.

Women and children often bear the weight of these burdens – spending many hours collecting fuel and cooking meals over smoky fires. But time poverty and health are not the only concerns that stem from cooking with solid fuels: During the hours spent collecting firewood, displaced and refugee women also face the risk of physical and sexual attacks, dehydration, and physical injuries.

The risks of gender-based violence (GBV) are also increased in the home. Women and girls in humanitarian settings are at higher risk for experiencing violence at home by their partners, and the failure to produce cooked food due to fuel shortage can increase this risk. Together, violence experienced both in and outside the home present a significant public health challenge.

Incidences of non-partner violence during fuel collection have been widely assessed and reported in the past decade by agencies such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Danish Refugee Council, and Physicians for Human Rights. Now we need stronger evidence on which approaches are most effective in reducing risks associated with a lack of access to energy for cooking. The research on the impacts of cookstove and fuel interventions on the risk factors for GBV, such as food insecurity and firewood collection, is limited.

To address this lack of evidence, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is collaborating with Plan International Spain, Plan International Rwanda, Johns Hopkins University, and Eneris Environment Energy Consultants to build the evidence base for how cleaner and more efficient cookstove and fuel interventions impact risk and/or incidence of gender-based violence in humanitarian settings.

The study will take place in Rwanda, which has long been a host to refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and more recently to nearly 89,000 refugees fleeing violence in Burundi. UNHCR and governmental agencies in Rwanda have distributed cleaner, more efficient cookstoves in refugee camps, but a shortage of cooking fuel in camps means refugees must collect firewood illegally in their host communities, putting them at increased risk for violence.

Given the multiple challenges associated with cooking, innovative interventions are needed. The proposed research, covering approximately 2,500 women, will examine the relationship between cooking energy access and GBV, and how strengthening women’s agency and increasing economic opportunity impacts risk factors for GBV. The intervention also includes a couples’ component focusing on challenging harmful gender norms and improving inter-personal communication. The results are expected in 2018.

But one study is not enough. In order to build a body of evidence linking clean cooking technology and fuel to life-enhancing outcomes, we need a collaborative effort by multiple agencies. Together we can focus greater attention and understanding on the potential of energy access to improve the lives of women and girls.

To mark the 16 Days of Activism to end gender-based violence, the UN Foundation blog will feature a diverse chorus of voices against violence between now and Human Rights Day, December 10. Read daily posts by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka here. Support the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women here. The views expressed in guest blog posts are those of the guest author.

[Photo: Katherine Arnold for Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves]