A Human Rights Approach to Energy, Poverty and Gender Inequality


Karlsson, Gail. 2013. “A Human Rights Approach to Energy, Poverty and Gender Inequality.” In Human Rights: The Hard Questions, edited by Cindy Holder and David Reidy, 231–45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Author: Gail Karlsson


There are close to three billion people living with little or no access to modern energy sources for household and productive uses. They primarily use traditional biomass fuels from local woodlands and fields – firewood, dung, agricultural residues and charcoal. Recognizing the importance and magnitude of this problem, the UN General Assembly designated 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, and the UN Secretary-General has launched a global initiative on Sustainable Energy for All by 2030.

Is lack of adequate energy a human rights issue? Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to a standard of living that is adequate for health and well-being, energy is not specifically mentioned. Some level of energy access seems to be essential for basic subsistence, including fuel for cooking food and keeping warm. But is there a right to “modern” energy services, such as power for water pumping, agricultural production, food processing, lighting and communications?

In 1986, the UN member states expanded the list of human rights to include a right to development “by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development” (United Nations General Assembly 1986 ). Possibly a right to energy would fall within this category, as a necessity for people’s economic and social development. (Summary from Cambridge University Press)

Topics: Development, Economies, Poverty, Gender, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Equality/Inequality, Infrastructure, Energy, Rights, Human Rights

Year: 2013

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