Grantee Interview: Making Energy Subsidy Reforms Work for Women and Men

January 30, 2017

This is the third in a series of interviews with grantees of the World Bank Group’s Umbrella Facility for Gender Equality (UFGE).


Sophia Georgieva, Social Development Specialist in the Europe and Central Asia region, was the lead author of the UFGE-funded study Toward Gender-Informed Energy Subsidy Reforms: Findings from Qualitative Studies in Europe and Central Asia. The report presents findings from eight countries on women’s coping strategies and challenges in interacting with public institutions in the face of rising energy costs. The study’s methodology has also been translated into a toolkit to provide a step-by-step guide to conducting qualitative assessments and stakeholder analyses to look more deeply into households’, individuals’, and group’s specific circumstances to better understand impacts on their lives and factors that drive their attitudes and decisions affected by energy policy decisions. Building on this work, Ms. Georgieva is contributing to the global Energy Subsidy Reform Assessment Framework, leading its component on qualitative research tools.  

Why is this study important?

This is the first World Bank Group (WBG) report to look at differential impacts of energy subsidy reforms on women and men and to offer recommendations on how to address these impacts in the ECA region. While some findings may not be directly transferable to other regions, practitioners can draw broader lessons from the report and adapt the qualitative research methodology that we used for other contexts. For example, teams from Africa are interested in lessons on how to adapt this type of diagnostic work to the African context.

How are men and women impacted by energy subsidy reforms?

In the 1990s, most ECA countries began removing energy subsidies. This has resulted in a cost increase for households, particularly for those in colder climates where energy use is highest. The social impact especially in those that have a legacy of almost universal energy subsidy coverage has been significant. In our study, we found that men and women were impacted differently by these rising energy costs and that overall women were more adversely impacted.

In efforts to reduce energy expenditures, women across the region resort to coping strategies that have negative impacts on their health, well-being, and time-use. Women increase the amount of time they spend on manual labor, such as by performing tasks like washing dishes and laundry by hand. They also alter their daily routines so rather than doing housework at a convenient hour during the day, they stay up late to use the cheaper night tariff. In countries such as Armenia, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan, rural women collect brushwood and manure to save on heating.

The rise in energy costs is also associated with an increase in informal and vulnerable employment. Men in urban areas resort to taking an additional job in construction, security, or a similar industry – jobs that often require heavy physical labor and time flexibility. Women, who are more time-constrained due to household and care responsibilities, take on informal work such as care of elderly persons or sell self-produced foods or crafts. Women are more likely to accept jobs below their qualifications, or flexible and lower paying jobs, which affects their overall earnings.

What are the implications for energy operations?

One of the recommendations of the study is to consider targeted social assistance for female-headed households to help mitigate the impact of energy subsidy reform. Female-headed households, in general, are more economically vulnerable. Elderly women living alone are at a particularly high risk of poverty due to their longer life expectancy and low fixed incomes. Such households may require additional assistance to ensure they are able to meet basic needs.

We also found that women could be powerful agents of change toward greater energy efficiency if the appropriate information reaches them. Information on energy efficiency is often technical, targeted to a specialized audience, and spread among men’s social circles. As women use a majority of the household energy and resort to a variety of coping strategies to curb the rising costs, they should be targeted to receive information on how to reduce energy consumption without compromising basic needs and heating comfort. In response to the findings of the study, an energy project in the Western Balkans is using a targeted communications campaigns on energy efficiency to reach women and children. Service agencies have also developed profiles or scenarios to train their social workers on how to approach female-headed households. For instance, a Development Policy Operation (DPO) in Serbia has expressed interest in conducting gender and diversity training for their staff.

What are some of your recommendations for those doing diagnostic or operational work in the energy sector?

It is important to understand differences in how men and women access and use energy. Discussing gender disparities in general does not have much traction with energy utility counterparts. You therefore need to make it clear what the gender gaps are and what can be done about them. For instance, if you are conducting a program on cook stove subsidies in Tajikistan, where 95 percent of the emigrants to Russia are men, and where women do not interact with energy providers, how do you reach the women and ensure they are able enroll into the program? You would need to use different communication channels, such as schools, hospitals, and NGOs, and ensure that women would have all the necessary documentation to enroll.

To know what the gender gaps are in a particular sector, it is important to invest time to look into the local context. Qualitative research is very good at this as it gives a flavor of how things work within households and communities. For this study we drilled beyond the household level by conducting gender disaggregates focus-group discussions to explicitly consider differences between men and women. This approach enabled us to take a close look of the dynamics around household decision-making and coping strategies in the face of the rising energy costs. We hope that the toolkit that we produced will be useful for other teams to carry out this type of analysis in other contexts.