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Cooking smoke kills women

In many societies, women are in charge of cooking. Day after day, and often throughout their lives, women spend many hours in the kitchen, often near a fire. Smoke, which deposits soot in the lungs, is responsible for 511,000 of the 1.3 million annual deaths of women caused by obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) around the world.

Improved stoves bring many benefits

Building improved stoves in rural areas decreases the need for firewood and reduces pollution caused by smoke fumes. This has been proven to improve the health of women, prevent respiratory diseases and reduce deforestation. Additionally, the World Health Organization has developed an interesting analysis on the contribution of this technology toward the Millennium Development Goal of “promoting equality between the sexes and the empowerment of women.” Similarly, at Heifer Peru we asked the question:  “In Heifer Peru’s work, how has the strategy of building improved stoves improved gender relations and women’s empowerment?” 

Heifer Peru has been working in field of improved stoves for more than 15 years.  In 2008, a study was conducted to examine the impact of using improved stoves in our projects. A “Systemization of Experiences” was developed to document Heifer Peru’s extensive experience in various regions and in various contexts throughout the country.

Women must be the decision makers

At first, field visits revealed that very sophisticated and perfectly built kitchens in Heifer Projects were simply not being used. In households where the improved stoves were being used, it became clear that those households were where the women were originally consulted prior to constructing the new stoves.  They were consulted throughout the entire process:  Did they want a new kitchen?  Where did they want it built?  Were they willing to attend training to understand stove handling and maintenance?  Involving the women from start to finish was a key aspect to the success of the project.  The women felt valued to know that their voice and decision had been taken into account. For Heifer Peru, this helped confirm a key component: the active participation of women in decision-making.

Improved stoves give women more time outside the kitchen

Given the gender perspective, it was initially discussed and assumed that the presence of improved stoves would reinforce the unique role of women in the home and make the women more comfortable in their own kitchen. In the testimonies we captured, many women noted the value that the improved stove brought for them was that they were more comfortable in their kitchen, and that they could cook more quickly and more efficiently, which freed the women up for other activities in the home and for themselves.  The latter point was noted as being most significant:  The women had more time for themselves.  It allowed them to have more time to leave their home and participate in life – community and family activities. This last was an indirect effect and revealed that the new stoves addressed a strategic necessity for many women: their own time management.

The third aspect analyzed was the approach of the technical field work.  Having to construct the new and improved stoves meant that field technicians had to enter the homes of the women to determine dimensions and to build the stoves. Entering the home, a private space, for an extended period of time to construct the stoves offered the technician the opportunity to understand the sensitivities around gender and observe the real behaviors and exercises of power that occurred in the local rural households.  The technicians had to understand the complexity of gender relations within these rural families.  This approach facilitated the technicians and families learning from each other. After multiple visits and exchanges, the women’s behavior and activities began to slowly change. The women became more involved in project activities but also went through personal change, the family dynamics began to change and the women became more involved in social roles. This meant that the women were not just passive recipients, but active agents of change.  This dynamic resulted in women and their homes serving a public role in the community.

Using these reflections, we can recognize the relationship between improved stoves and women’s empowerment. Strategies and processes for women’s empowerment are not framed in a single space, or with a single player.  In this case, it involved not only women, but also other members in the home, and even the technical officer and the organization. The kitchen ceased to be perceived as the sole domain of women and became a place for family decision-making and empowerment.  Empowerment was one of the indirect results, though. Over time, there was a steady improvement of gender relations at home.  This allowed women to actively participate in the community and receive education and training on issues of leadership, citizenship and organizational development, all of which provided them a new level of empowerment beyond the domestic sphere.

With all these reflections, we are reminded of the real dimension of Heifer’s and Heifer Peru’s work.  Stoves were improved for better food and health, but the stoves were also used to develop our strategy to improve gender relations, family power dynamics and the position of women to facilitate their active participation in family and communal decision making.

Improved stoves must be incorporated into healthy home and healthy family strategies

There were areas where the presence of new, improved stoves did not have the same impact – mostly where women were not part of the decision making and design. It was often the case that when the men of the community were the primary participants involved in the project, arguing that success for the project was the actual construction of the stoves, the masonry work, and the number of stoves built without seeing the profound impact that the stove’s footprint could have in changing attitudes and family values, especially for women. From this we were convinced that to achieve the most effective impact, the strategy of using improved stoves should be integrated into a larger strategy of healthy housing. This would create improvements in the rest of their home environment (cleanliness and order) but above all, the improved gender relations within the home and among the family fosters a healthy family.

Heifer invests in women

It is important to recognize that gender equity is embedded in every activity and component of our work, and its presence will typically determine the success of a project.  Initially, with the improved stoves projects, we did not have the explicit intention of generating changes in the lives of women.  We must continue to seek to alleviate the heavy workload of women in the home and consider how much better off we and the women are when they are fully participating, fully informed and recognize their capacity to decide, enabling the development of further participation for them outside the home.


Madeline Munoz