The Dangers of Firewood

In displaced persons camps in Darfur, women — who risk “only” being raped, rather than being killed — face constant danger whenever they venture out of the camps to collect firewood. As Liv Ullman, honorary chair of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, reminds us, though, sexual violence is not the only threat associated with gathering firewood, and nor are women in Darfur the only ones who are endangered.

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Nor is sexual violence the only aspect of the problem. Firewood, burned indoors, produces toxic fumes that threaten the health of children. The need for firewood is frequently a rationale for keeping girls out of school. And its collection — which often includes cutting down trees on agriculturally marginal land — is a major factor in irreversible environmental degradation.

The many dangers of firewood gathering have been recognized for years by the United Nations and nongovernmental, international, and humanitarian organizations. Yet little has been done to promote effective protection strategies. Development aid to help these and other vulnerable people — already at historic lows – could begin falling precipitously as the world’s economic woes deepen.

It is time to get beyond firewood. The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children – an organization that I helped found nearly 20 years ago — has begun a worldwide drive to explore alternative fuels and cutting-edge energy technologies, such as clean-burning fuels, fuel-efficient stoves, and solar cookers. Working with UNHCR and the World Food Program, its goal is to reduce the violence by promoting the development of safe alternatives to firewood.

I just selected Solar Cookers International as my charity of choice at a “charity Secret Santa” event. I strongly suggest donations to similar life-saving organizations this holiday season.

(image of a solar cooker from flickr user Akuppa under a Creative Commons license)