Filipino women speak out on equitable energy access

In any country or society where there is a dearth of social services or a lack of implementation in social policy, women are the more vulnerable sector. Given this, it is crucial that in both the determination of social problems and in the implementation of solutions, women should be consulted and heard. 

In direct relation to this, the Center for Empowerment, Innovation, and Training on Renewable Energy (CentRE), together with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) Philippines and other partner organizations, continues an initiative that began in 2021 to bring together, document, and share the narratives of Filipino women on an important issue: energy access.

Watch the video here.

The project, titled “Women in Inclusive and Sustainable Energy (WISE) and Just Transition”, is a dialogue series where Filipino women from different walks of life can safely share their circumstances and views on the importance of energy access. 

Through discussions, they also determined forms of collective action to promote just energy transition in the Philippines, and linked to this is a myriad of environmental and social welfare concerns such as climate change.   

Recent available data showed the country’s electrification level of 94 percent lagged behind other Southeast Asian countries. Over 11 million Filipinos or 2.4 million households remain without electricity. If they do have access, the electricity supply is intermittent. In some islands, electricity is only available four to six hours a day. 

A conversation with women 

Marie Stella Cardenas, executive director of CentTRe, said the WISE and Just Transition Dialogue Series offered a platform for conversations as well as agenda-building.

“There haven’t been enough discussions with women in both rural and urban communities when it comes to energy access. Women in communities – peasants, fisherfolk, urban and rural poor – have many experiences to share about electricity usage because they’re the ones who use it most as they remain home-based. This was already the case even before the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

Cardenas said based on the findings of the survey, women are the ones most greatly inconvenienced when electricity supplies are insufficient, absent, or too expensive.  

“The work of women at home not only sustains their respective families but also contributes to family earnings; this work requires electricity,” she said.

Women perform many roles in their homes and society at large, and electricity serves as a tool for women to perform these and help them improve their circumstances as well as the lives of others. Given this, it is an injustice that government and policymakers seldom consult them and consider their input when formulating programs and policies on energy.

“We believe that women should speak out and share their views, experiences, and what they feel are potential solutions to challenges like energy access, sustainable development, and just transition. It’s also our mission in the campaign to facilitate the building of a network of women who will push forward clean energy advocacy,” Cardenas said.

In giving women a platform to speak, CentRE’s WISE program proves valuable as a series of focus group discussions (FGDs) with women from different communities. 

Cardenas explained that the documentation of the problems and the possible solutions can be used as the basis for policy recommendations for policymakers and agencies tasked with implementing policies.

With regular electricity access for freezers, women are able to sell ice lollies and other ice-based desserts.

Filipino women and their narratives on energy access

In the Philippines, women are generally in charge of household management, from budgeting to food preparation. Food and utilities, especially electricity, form the highest household expenditure. Ordinary Filipinos spend 15.7 percent of their income on electricity costs. In contrast, in countries like the U.S. and Japan, only 2.5 percent or even a lower percentage of a family’s income or budget, is allotted for electricity. 

In a study covering 64 countries, the International Labor Organization (ILO) said women performed around 76 percent of all unpaid work. This meant in the Indo-Pacific region, a large majority of women compared to men used their time doing unpaid tasks. 

In the Philippines, men are considered heads of families because in many cases, they are the ones who earn an income. Women, however, are expected to do the difficult task of allocating the husband’s earnings to ensure it can cover the family’s basic needs, including electricity.

“A realization we made is that when women get more access to electricity, they find ways to maximize its use and benefits for learning purposes of their children, for income generating activities, to improve comfort and convenience at home, and, generally, to improve their families’ circumstances,” Cardenas shared.

Initial results of the WISE and Just Transition discussions have shown that Filipino women considered taking care of their families, and by extension their communities, an intrinsic part of their lives.

Women first think of the welfare of their families, others in situations of crisis, and follow by their own daily lives, thus their participation in discussions of policy or decision-making on development as well as security issues, is essential. Their standpoint and viewpoint to problems are to find immediate and long-term ways to solve them – for their families and their communities.

A convenience store at Pamilacan.

Women discuss problems caused by lack of electricity access

Melody Villanueva, 58, is from Brgy. Cabulihan, Unisan, Quezon. She is the division auditor of the local chapter of a party-list group. Where she lives, electricity is cut off for up to eight hours a day. She did not mention how much her family paid for the electricity and how much it costs per kilowatt, but she insisted the electricity they get is far from enough, especially considering how much it costs.

“What I worry about is how kids suffer when there’s no power. It was harder during the pandemic when children failed to download lessons or attend online classes when electricity was out,” she said.

Understandably, the situation was very stressful for the children. No electricity also meant they could not charge their tablets or cell phones which they used as learning tools. They also couldn’t charge the lamps used as light sources when they studied at night. 

From Eastern Samar, Alma Latina is the local women group’s treasurer. She shared that the electricity in their area comes from the local cooperative and diesel generators, but the supply is irregular and insufficient. 

“At night, power is available only for four hours. When there are heavy rains or typhoons, power gets completely cut off. We’re always afraid that the power lines will be damaged and we’ll end up losing electricity for weeks,” she said.

Alma said their community of 410 households needs more electricity and greater access because they live far from civilization and most residents rely on electricity for their livelihood. 

“Our fishermen need refrigerators to store and preserve their catch. Every time electricity is cut off, they have to go to the provincial capital to buy ice so the fish will not spoil – that’s three hours away,” she said.

Most of the women in Alma’s community are stay-at-homes, but they still try to find means to add to the family’s finances, for instance by baking bread. They cannot do this at night, however, because there is no power. 

The lack of health services is also a concern connected to poor energy access. 

“The local health center is useless because they need electricity to operate, and the intermittent supply has all but rendered them useless,” she said.

No refrigerators mean residents cannot store certain emergency medicines, and no aircon units mean other medicines are in danger of spoiling or losing their efficacy. During emergencies, residents have to transport the sick by boat to the closest hospital which takes four hours to reach.

“Mothers are said to be the “light of homes”, but how can we light up our homes when there’s no electricity? If we have stable electricity here, we can do so much to improve our lives and our communities. We can be more productive,” she said.

The solution that Alma’s group sees is to secure a solar PV system and a backup generator. They know that a generator is expensive, but it is still more affordable than what they currently use in their homes – kerosene.

With electricity for freezers, perishable food can be kept longer.

Michelle Basco from Donsol, Sorsogon, is the president of the local women group. She shared that in her community, families use electricity mainly to run the refrigerators and the lights. 

To generate income, the women sew plushies and stuffed toys in the shape of whale sharks. These are made from recycled cloth scraps. The work has the potential to be profitable, but the intermittent power supply makes it hard. The toys are sewn using electric sewing machines and the women only get to focus on the work at night. Sadly, electricity is often cut off at night. 

“Electricity here is almost double the cost of electricity in Manila, never mind that the households consume almost the same amount,” Michelle said. Electricity eats up a fourth of the income of her family’s income, so they have to exert much creativity to stretch what is left.

The unstable electricity supply also has serious health implications.  

“One of my relatives suffered a stroke and has hypertensive episodes whenever the weather gets too hot. If we had constant electricity in our house, we’d all be less afraid about her health and well-being,” she said.

The situation faced by women in communities when they have no access to electricity is succinctly, and also humorously, described by Damins Francisco, a member of a women group in Sta. Magdalena, Sorsogon. 

According to Damins, women feel “emotionally deranged” whenever there is a brownout in their community.

“It’s like people can’t think clearly when the power goes out, it’s that stressful,” she said.

Elaborating, Damins said hearing the generators in the neighborhood rumble and roar is stressful, but it is also stressful how the lack of electricity is a giant monkey wrench in everybody’s plans to do housework, earn a living, and keep people with health conditions from falling sick.

“Even the very few small celebrations and special occasions are affected when there’s a brownout. There are no lights, no music, nothing. Life is better and more comfortable when there’s electricity,” she said. 

Damins pays P1,800 (US$33) a month for power consumption. To her, it is an exorbitant amount that takes up eight percent of their household budget. 

She said: “This is why we should support efforts to democratize energy resources and help communities gain access to renewable energy like solar. 

“Even small community-based organizations can put up community renewable energy projects, and residents can share the costs. The services of electric cooperatives are not always reliable, and people in areas like ours need more electricity if we’re to improve our economic conditions. 

“We know that with renewable energy, we have cheaper electricity that’s reliable and more sustainable. People can greatly benefit from it, and speaking for our community, I know people here are willing to learn more about it and how we can have access.” 

Solar panels on roof of school at Pamilacan.

Increased energy access means progress 

One specific case of a community whose womenfolk greatly benefited from increased energy access is that of Pamilacan.

Pamilacan is an off-grid island community in Bohol, in the eastern part of the Philippines, with a rich marine biodiversity, a land area of 14,423 hectares, and a population of almost 2,000 people.

Marred by a history of destructive fishing practices in the past, bans were put in place and efforts to promote ecotourism were pursued on the island. Before 2017, however, residents only had access to electricity six to eight hours a day during nighttime.

In 2017, a solar company established by German renewable energy champion Michael Saalfeld donated a P4 million (US$72,148) solar PV and storage system to the community. Saalfeld’s company, WeGen Laudato Si’, sought to contribute to Pamilacan’s social upliftment while providing proof of concept for the technical feasibility and resilience of virtual power plants in off-grid islands.  

The solar PV and storage system provides over 39 kWp of electricity – higher than the island’s 30 kWp consumption. The hybrid system is built on the rooftop of the local high school and feeds into the island grid to complement the electric cooperative’s diesel generator, providing daytime electricity from 8 am to 4 pm. Now, the island has power 24 hours daily.

Pamilacan, Bohol.

Food vendor Hermecila Telabon, 48, has three children aged 13, 18, and 19 enrolled at the local grade and high schools respectively. Their lives were harder when they didn’t have electricity. There were few livelihood opportunities and even fewer productive things to do with their time. 

Now, she said, “We’re still poor, but I think our lives have improved. We now have more electric fans in our house so we can have a break from the heat. We also have a freezer now. We make and sell ice lollies and other ice-based desserts. All this adds to our income.” 

Her family’s electricity bill now is higher, from a monthly average of P150 to P1,000 (US$2.40 to US$20). This is because they use more electricity now that they have a 24/7 supply. They can pay the added costs through their increased income. Apart from the freezer, they use the television to watch afternoon shows and monitor news developments. 

Hermecila, along with a few neighbors, also started a small catering business. Their regular customers include the small resorts and bed and breakfast that have popped up on the island since 2017 when electricity became accessible around the clock. She is also happy about how they are now able to store food and keep it fresh longer.

As she explained, they could not store food before, and they were forced to eat and finish everything in one sitting every time because leftovers would often spoil in the heat. Because of having 24/7 electricity now, they no longer have to worry about food spoilage. This is also why it is possible for her and other mothers to sell cooked meals, cold drinks, and iced desserts.

She said: “We can now buy meat from the mainland and we don’t have to cook and eat everything because we can put them in the refrigerator or freezer and the meat would remain edible. The vegetables and eggs also stay fresh longer and the greens don’t wilt in the heat. Having electricity all day changed our way of life for the better.”

Eufemia “Emy” Ibaseo, 63, and her cousin Esther Madrona 53, run a sari-sari store (convenience store) in Purok (Area) 4. They used to sell only canned goods, shampoo, and laundry detergent, but because Pamilacan has more electricity and the people have more income, they have added ice, ice-based desserts, soda and chips.

Like many in the community, they bought a freezer when electricity became available 24/7 on the island. On a good day, they can make P1,000 (US$20) to P1,500 (US$30), and their electricity bill amounts to P1,500 to P2,000 a month.  

They have no complaints about their electricity bill because their income can cover it. “On most days, we earn P500 (US$10) to P700 (US$14), and we’re able to put that back into the capital we invested,” she said. 

Hermecila and Emy both agreed one of the best things about having 24/7 electricity is being able to watch TV during the day. 

“Now we can watch the news, old movies, and the noontime variety shows. Years before when we only had electricity at night, we’d always be left behind on the news, we’d find out about what happened in Bohol and the rest of the Philippines only at night. There are no newspapers here, and the radio signal wasn’t so good before, either,” Emy said.

These days, she said, they are up to date on current news and developments.

“We know immediately if an earthquake hit a province, or if there’s a typhoon on the way. Getting the news on time like weather developments gives us a chance to prepare. We’re more ready against calamities,” she said.

Then there are the elementary school teachers. Pre-pandemic, they noted how they were able to enjoy more time with their families since the island gained 24/7 electricity. Before, they had to take home their lesson plans and reports because they had electricity only at night. They often had to turn in their reports late to their school authorities on the main island, thus they also get feedback late. 

With 24/7 electricity access and the ensuing 24/7 internet access, they receive all reports and memos on time. The teachers also get creative with instructional materials, now that they are able to plan and design everything online. For instance, they had to draw figures on kraft paper and cut them out for visual aids. Now, they just download images from the web.

These are just a few of the many stories of women whose lives have transformed due to access to 24/7, clean and renewable energy.

Students from Pamilacan charging their electronic devices.

Improving women’s access to services and participation in public decision making 

A direct conclusion can be made from all these stories and narratives: improving women’s access to services is important. Their awareness of problems makes their participation in decision-making processes in the community and beyond, crucial to social progress.

The CentRe’s Cardenas pointed out that increasing women’s access to vital services such as electricity and strengthening their participation in decision-making when it comes to policy crafting and execution is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

SDG 5 which relates to gender equality and empowerment is connected to SDG7, or access to modern, clean, and sustainable energy (SDG 7). These are also connected to SDG 8 inclusive growth and decent work (SDG 8). All these SDGs, she said, are mutually reinforcing.

“Access to energy, especially clean, renewable, and sustainable energy, is what connects economic well-being, increased social equity, and a natural environment where women can progress,” she said. 

For their part, the women who took part in the WISE dialogues are all united in saying women should be consulted when it comes to the crafting of public policy and programs that aim to improve social conditions. 

Alma from Eastern Samar, representing the collective view, said: “Solutions to society’s problems, not just energy access, can be more effective if women, from the beginning, were consulted on how to address them.”

The CentRe’s Women WISE project continues on and partners involved in the work are committed to gathering stories of women and how they analyze the problem of limited energy access and what can be done to address it.

“Giving women a stronger voice will ensure that women’s needs and perspectives are taken into account in decisions on how energy is generated and used. This can help shape the socio-economic benefits of energy access and clean energy transition,” Cardenas said.

This article was written with the support of Oxfam Pilipinas as part of its campaign for International Women’s Day to raise women’s voices and celebrate their leadership and contributions in creating a just and equal future. Interviews are with women who participated in the Women WISE project of the Center for Empowerment, Innovation, and Training on Renewable Energy (CentRE). 

Watch the video here.

Top photo credit: iStock/ Renato Borlaza. Filipino woman and her baby.

All other photos credit: Ina Silverio

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