Gender and Health Issues in the Biomass Energy Cycle: Impediments to Sustainable Development


Wickramasinghe, Anoja. 2003. “Gender and Health Issues in the Biomass Energy Cycle: Impediments to Sustainable Development.” Energy for Sustainable Development 7 (3): 51–61.

Author: Anoja Wickramasinghe


Biomass-based energy generation is at the heart of rural life, food and nutrition in particular. Sri Lanka relies heavily on biomass for energy generation in the domestic sector, in which nearly 8 million tonnes (Mt) of biomass is consumed annually. The household sector has been able to optimize its biomass use, without intervention by the state, through the involvement of women. The role of women has been taken for granted in relation to their traditional gender role, by which socially accepted and culturally sensitive imbalances have been established. Health issues pervade the biomass cycle from the stage of biomass-gathering to its end-use. Women, who link the outdoor biomass resource environment with domestic consumption, initiate the cycle and traverse it repeatedly. This study focuses on the physical exhaustion, psychological deterioration, and ill-health generated by the cycle, as reported by participants in the study. The self-perceived problems are taken as testimonies of the multiple health implications of the biomass cycle. Women in the cycle enhance the consumption value of biomass by integrating it into human well-being, and food and nutritional security. Men's labour appears in the form of a helping hand on occasionally performed tasks. The gender differentiation of activities and their health repercussions gives rise to the need for a wider debate on social justice for women's health, their rights over resources, and also occupational and workplace security. The predominant imbalances in the biomass cycle are nurtured by the conceptualization of biomass as a “free commodity”, “women's work”, and the “gender” ideology. The health risks and the self-reported ailments are disproportionately distributed and the repercussions suffered by women in their effort of ensuring household energy security are serious. Problems that women deal with in the outdoor sphere during procuring and transporting are specific to their occupations in this cycle and their gender. It is clear that these issues confront both the concepts of sustainability and social justice. This paper is organized with the intention of discussing conceptual issues and disseminating the findings of research conducted in Sri Lanka. Data presented in this paper were gathered through a questionnaire-based survey administered to 720 households and through field discussions, observations and ethnographic records. Reference to the spatial location is omitted so as to avoid lengthy discussions on ecological aspects.

Topics: Gender, Women, Men, Gender Roles, Health, Households, Infrastructure, Energy Regions: Asia, South Asia Countries: Sri Lanka

Year: 2003

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