Hillary Clinton, one of the most powerful women in the world, is talking about cooking stoves. Whilst this might not initially strike us as being a feminist issue – indeed, it could be seen as quite the opposite – this is actually a very good thing. Poorly ventilated small fires are claiming millions of lives each year, and the wood collected for them is harming the environment.
When thinking of the leading causes of death from women and small children, the usual suspects spring to mind – HIV/AIDS, mortality in childbirth … but in fact, one of the world’s leading risks to the health of women and children is inhaling smoke from cooking on open fires, which leads to lung and heart diseases. According to the UN, smoke from such fires costs around 2 million lives each year.
As Madeleine Bunting asserts in the UK’s Guardian this week, millions of women across Africa and India spend several hours a day crouched over small fires, cooking. Often their homes have no chimneys and poor ventilation. Bunting states that:
‘This daily proximity destroys lungs. Small children staying close to their mothers are equally vulnerable. Finally, this huge story is percolating through to the mainstream.’
And this assertion is quite correct – the story is heading for the mainstream – with the help of Hillary Clinton. Clinton is due to announce $50m (£32m) to help the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, to supply 100m fuel-efficient stoves across Africa.
Bunting’s article in the Guardian this week not only focuses on the human cost of inefficient cooking stoves, but also on the destruction of the environment caused by such cooking methods, writing that:
‘In many countries, chopping trees for firewood is leading to long-term environmental degradation… The results are shockingly evident… hills are now largely stripped bare of trees. Further environmental damage is done by the tones of soot spewed into the atmosphere [from the stoves], contributing to global warming.’
Though the environmental impact of the stoves is perhaps not something that we’d necessarily focus on here at Zelda Lily, the environmental impact actually provides further risk to women’s health. The staple foodstuffs of African countries largely require cooking so, as firewood becomes scarcer to find, women need to walk further to collect what they need to feed their families. In places of conflict, such as Congo or Darfur, collecting firewood exposes women and children to a greater risk of attack or rape. In bringing this issue to the global fore, Hillary Clinton is exposing the health risks faced by the women who use open fire stoves.
To improve the situation does not require expensive technology. Instead, it is about using fuel efficiently. Clean stoves can be made at relatively low cost –they must simply be distributed fast enough to prevent the problems caused by the current cooking stoves worsening.
I’m hopeful that Hillary Clinton’s message will spread quickly, and aid agencies will get behind the campaign. Publicity can do great things for aid – over the last few years millions of malaria nets have been sent to Africa, and they’ve had a dramatic effect. Hopefully campaigners will mobilise to do the same with clean stoves. They’re definitely a feminist issue.