Lights out leaves women at risk

Date: January 1, 1970
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We all dread the moment the television crackles suddenly to blackness; lights dim drastically to dark as the hum from the refrigerator fades and the microwave, mid rotation, stops abruptly without the customary “ping.À Eskom, South Africa’s national electricity supplier, is implementing load shedding.
Though the country has enjoyed a brief reprieve from the rolling cuts resulting from insufficient energy outputs, Eskom’s newest warnings and the dropping temperatures mean that the country, and the entire Southern African Development Community region, should once again be prepared.

Though the cuts are becoming a regular part of our lives, the effects these energy shortages have on the economy and its residents are varied and vast. The consequences hamper everyone’s everyday activity and general productivity. However, in many ways the electricity cuts may disproportionately affect women in particular, and especially women already living in vulnerable situations.
Each woman, and indeed each man, has personal schedules, activities, and electricity requirements, and even these broad impacts will vary from person to person. Load shedding in many ways specifically affects women in their capacities as parents, business people and, quite simply, the generally less physically strong sex.
Jay Bradley is the CEO of Usindo Ministries, a shelter for abused and homeless women, their children, and teenage girls. She points out that personal safety and security is a concern for women when the lights are out. “When load shedding occurs, women on their own will be at greater risk. Perpetrators can target them more easily, and more successfully, in the dark.”
This risk poses an even greater threat in informal communities, where the whereabouts and goings on of most residents are familiar to others, and opportunistic criminals can easily identify vulnerable targets.  Lack of lighting makes women more vulnerable to violence, rape and theft.
Although some have argued that informal settlements are not as affected because many do not have access to the resources anyway, pro-active electrification of informal and rural communities over the past years means this is not always so. According to available statistics from the National Electricity Regulator and the Department of Minerals and Energy, the level of electrification in South Africa rose from 36% in 1994 to 72% at the end of 2004. The number of rural households electrified countrywide rose from 12% in 1994 to 52% in 2005.
Security is not the only problems at Usindo Ministries, which can accommodate roughly 85 women and their children at any one time. In addition, cooking appliances, lights, refrigerators, freezers, and office equipment also become impossible to use, making even the basic running of a shelter such as this even more difficult.
Elize Lamprecht, on the other hand, highlights the trouble with successfully running your own business without sufficient electricity supplies. “In general, load shedding does not only affect business directly, but also indirectly. Lost opportunities include less orders due to telephone systems not working, people being reluctant to enter a mostly dark shop or place of business and mistakes being made by cashiers who have to work on calculators. In addition, stress is placed on sensitive equipment and the risk of shoplifting and other types of criminality increases,” she says.
Lamprecht is involved in the running of Koljander, a co-operative home industry in Johannesburg that sells a variety of home baking and hand crafted gifts. The business, as many others, relies heavily on electricity for lighting, computer and telephone systems, cash registers, and freezer and fridge facilities.
“A loss of productivity thus correlates directly to a loss of profit,” Lamprecht emphasises, especially because Koljander’s products are produced fresh on a daily basis.
Although it is true that all businesses, regardless of who owns them, suffer in a similar manner, a recent report on South African women entrepreneurs by the Department of Trade and Industry found that there are specific challenges and obstacles that women face when entering business. These include a generally lower level of work and educational background due to previously established social customs, comparative earning discrepancies, and family obligations arising from conventional gender roles.
Already at a disadvantage in starting and developing their own business, the additional difficulties that subsequently arise from load shedding could very well be a breaking point for women.
Finally, tradition has still left childcare as a predominantly female arena, meaning mothers are specifically affected. And, with the Eighty20 Consumer Information Portal stating that almost 80 % of South African women between the ages of 20 and 50, a corresponding total of eight-and-a-half million women, have at least one child, the implications can be far-reaching.
When the same set of statistics go on to suggest that, according to previous census data, roughly three million of these mothers are not economically active and in fact two-and-a-half million are unemployed according to the official definition, there is huge potential for the problem to be magnified.
As usual, the poor are more severely affected. Mothers who are more affluent may be rushing to the shops to buy gas heating and extra blankets, and may even be grateful that her children must take a break from Cartoon Network or Playstation marathons. On the other hand, mothers in rural communities face trying to provide for their children’s food and warmth needs, with extra concerns for basic security.
“I don’t want my son playing outside if I can’t keep an eye on him,” says Maggie, a single mother living in an informal settlement outside Mossel Bay. “You don’t know who he’ll end up talking to and often people are drunk or dangerous.”
However, with nothing to do inside when the television does not work, and with mothers having to complete household duties that take longer without electricity, such children are often out of their parents’ sight. Single mothers, still a more common occurrence than single fathers, are some of the most affected, as are the many grandmothers who raise their grandchildren alone.
Amid all of the electricity uncertainty, one thing we know for sure is that the current South African electricity situation is significantly more complicated than the flick of a switch.
Alida van Niekerk is a journalist based in South Africa. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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