The protection sector undertakes activities aimed at obtaining and ensuring full respect for the rights of the individual – this can mean ensuring legal protections, such as registration, representation, and intervening in situations of human rights abuses, as well as physical protection, such as patrols and accompaniment, including during firewood collection.
The drudgery and burden of accessing energy – often in the form of firewood – almost always fall on women and girls, as they are responsible for cooking family meals in most humanitarian contexts. Without nearby, safely accessible natural resources, women and girls often travel long distances to find sufficient firewood to cook for their families. Firewood collection is incredibly dangerous, exposing them to the risk of physical and sexual violence. Sadly, every day, millions of women and children risk being raped, beaten, or killed as they collect firewood. They must often traverse rugged terrain harboring thieves, militia, armed groups, wild animals, and threats of all kinds. Moreover, many women have expressed hesitance to use donkeys or carts to carry the wood for fear they would be a greater target or that the donkeys and carts would be stolen. Most women carry the heavy loads on their backs or heads.
Physical protection, such as the presence of peacekeepers or civilian police is often so limited that women and girls are susceptible to attack the moment they leave the relative safety of their camps. In some places, rape or assault during firewood collection has been described as a commonplace occurrence. In 2009, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reported that 90% of confirmed rapes in Farchana camp in eastern Chad occurred outside camps when women were collecting the firewood needed to cook their food.1 As Josette Sheeran of the UN World Food Programme stated, “My awakening moment was being in Darfur, meeting with the women, and realizing they’re getting raped trying to cook the food we bring them.”2
Another protection risk associated with firewood collection is exposure to landmines. In conflict-affected northern Sri Lanka, for example, a survey conducted by Mine Advisory Group found firewood collection to be among the three activities where fear of mine explosions was the highest. Uncleared landmines severely disrupt the lives and livelihoods of returnees, confining them to the small perimeter of residential areas and preventing safe access to essential services and good, particularly firewood.3
Domestic violence related to a lack of cooking fuel and energy sources is sadly another protection risk that many women and girls face. When women are unable to prepare a meal due to a lack of cooking fuel, tensions increase between family members, sometimes erupting into physical abuse and domestic violence in the home.
Without lighting in camps, women and children become especially vulnerable to harassment, assault, and rape when they need to move about at night. The simple act of walking to or using latrines at night, without lighting, can expose them to major protection risks.
In emergencies and crisis situations, distribution of fuel-efficient stoves, fuels, and solar lanterns can drastically decrease the protection risks faced by vulnerable populations, particularly women and girls.
Providing fuel, supporting alternative fuels, and promoting awareness about unsafe areas, alternative collection routes, and good practices can be life saving interventions for many vulnerable individuals.
1 “Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women,” Physicians for Human Rights, May 2009.
2 “Igniting Change: A Strategy for Universal Adoption of Clean Cookstoves and Fuels,” Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, November 2011. http://www.cleancookstoves.org/resources/fact-sheets/igniting-change.pdf
3 Safe Access to Firewood and Alternative Energy in the North of Sri Lanka: An Appraisal Report, World Food Programme, August 2010.