U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is fending off criticism for comments he made about the relationship between fossil fuels and sexual violence against African women. He said in South Africa that using fossil fuels to generate electricity in Africa would lower rates of rape because, “When the lights are on, when you have light that shines — the righteousness, if you will — on those types of acts.” To paraphrase, the literal light of electricity (and figurative one of God?) would stop some acts of sexual violence. The general feedback in the media has been about his unclear reasoning and the ridiculousness of linking a light bulb to a pervasive social problem. To approach it more moderately though, I believe he was just hypothesizing that light in homes would make women logistically safer. It was a somewhat silly notion that just shouldn’t have been said aloud so flippantly. Here is the text of his statement:
However, the issues of fossil fuels, climate change, and gender-based violence are actually not unrelated—they’re just related in a way totally contrary to Perry’s comments. This is an opportunity to better understand how fossil fuels are actually bad for women in sub-Saharan Africa, and why it is alarming that one of the world’s most powerful policymakers on energy would miss this.
Climate change: Fossil fuels, the Fahrenheit, and female farmers
First, climate change is particularly threatening to poor women in Africa who are assault victims during climate change migrations. As an example, the Sudanese Civil War, including the genocide in Darfur, was due in part to desertification of grazing lands for livestock. As these grazing lands turned to hot desert, ethnic groups were forced to move to new areas to keep their animals fed. This migration caused conflicts with those already present in the area, spurring violence that entailed sexual assaults as military strategy. As the temperature of the earth rises, such conflicts will only increase in pastoral and agricultural societies that rely on the land for their survival.
Additionally, 50-80% of all agricultural workers in developing countries are women, an economically vulnerable group. Thus, they will lose out more from climate change that alters their growing and harvesting conditions more than men, who are more likely to be employed in non-farming or industrialized sectors. Financial vulnerability also forces rural women to work farther away from home and its protections, e.g. moving to a city alone, walking farther each day to access suitable land, or engaging in sex work to survive. Hence, climate change affects the safety of women in developing countries in particular ways.
Perry may have been referring to the boon of fossil fuels across the globe, it’s not clear from his quote, but Africa is pivotal to the natural resource industry in the 21st century. The western coast of central Africa, specifically around the Gulf of Guinea, has some of the sweetest crude in the world, meaning it is high quality and requires less refinement than sand-filled oil, thus raising profit margins. We should assume that, as U.S. Secretary of Energy, Perry knows this, and would be aware that expansion of this industry across the globe entails its expansion in Africa.
Sexual violence and natural resource extraction
Perry’s assertion that increased extraction of fossil fuels would lower sexual assault rates is probably the opposite of what would happen in sub-Saharan Africa.
In developing countries, there is some evidence to suggest a correlation between militarized natural resource extraction sites and violence against women in the area. There are several explanations for this. One is that jobs in the natural resource sector require men to move away from their families, and thus the kinship ties, social norms, and social boundaries that help regulate their behavior. This is not to say that men need to be socially monitored to not commit gender violence, but that all people rely on authority, rules, and the actions of those around them to know what is acceptable. (Imagine the otherwise responsible American university student acting badly on spring break vacation in Mexico—this is an example of how the removal of norms in a new environment changes how we comport ourselves.) Additionally, valuable natural resources require increased (male) security agents to keep operations running. So, natural resource extraction presents the conditions under which sexual violence can become more common.
Secondly, natural resource corporations can become their own mini-governments and, conveniently, their own law enforcement in developing countries. In line with James Scott’s work on state theory, I found that foreign oil companies operating in the Niger Delta employ their own private security forces, erect clear perimeters around extraction sites, exploit local labor at informal and very low wages, and function largely outside of the control of the Nigerian government. In drawing a comparison to a government, Nigerian oil companies a) employ their own military, b) maintain distinct geographic boundaries, c) draw some form of “taxation” through labor, and d) function autonomously. These are four measurements of state strength. Accordingly, gender violence perpetrated by employees or other affiliates of the company could easily go unpunished, as the company acts as its own police force of sorts. So, natural resource extraction then presents the conditions under which sexual violence can go unrecognized.
Fossil fuel economies are no help to women
On a larger scale, the fossil fuel industry economically marginalizes women of the global south in nearly every way. First, it is a male-dominated industry that offers few jobs for females, who can earn income largely through the agricultural or informal sectors. Childcare responsibilities and unequal domestic duties make it difficult for women to work far away from the home, which jobs in natural resources call for. There is spurious evidence that such economic disenfranchisement increases rates of prostitution, and the gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS that accompanies that phenomenon. Oil, gas, minerals and other natural resources do not increase employment or economic opportunities for women.
Secondly, the African men it employs often spend long hours far away from their families or live at their work site altogether, as there may be low population density around drilling or mining sites. This only serves to exacerbate the inequality in domestic work in the home.
Third, modern economic investigations reveal that, as a whole, women don’t fare so well when the bulk of family income is in the form of cash paid to men. It separates women from control of family finances, and UN reports indicate that less of that money makes it home to children than if women earn it. Even in historical examinations, there is the theory that the transition from (comparably more gender equal) agricultural lifestyles to (comparably male-based) cash economies, as result of European investment in Africa, hastened the transition from traditionally matrilineal family structures to patrilineal ones.
Although this is just my conjecture, I imagine that Rick Perry has heard of the use of rape as a weapon of war, probably in the context of the Congo. It is doubtful that he was aware that South Africa suffers from a prolific scourge of sexual assault in its townships, and it is just a coincidence he made his remarks from there. He knows so little about the region that he may have been attempting to bring together the issues of fossil fuels and gender violence to further his energy agenda, without realizing that the reasons for gender-based violence in different parts of Africa vary—mass displacement, militarization, ethnic cleansing, geography, etc.
Drawing on the issue of violence against women to further a totally different agenda is misleading and exploitative.
As an aside, from my brief scan, it appears that most news articles on Perry’s comments referred to his “trip to Africa.” He was in Capetown, South Africa to be exact. This ambiguity regarding his location matters. Capetown is one of the richest cities on the continent, a worldwide tourism spot, and frankly, totally unrepresentative of anywhere else in Africa. The fact that Perry discussed development for the whole continent from this city, based on a conversation with a local girl, demonstrates his lack of understanding of the region—one common among Western policy-makers. The media’s description of his trip ignores the fact that Africa is the second largest and second most populous continent in the world (20% of earth’s land mass, with a population of over one billion). It’s ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity is unparalleled. It is unimaginable that reports would refer to his “trip to Europe” if he was in Geneva or his “trip to North America” if he was in New York. Coverage of African politics deserves more nuance than that.
An obvious last thought: Wouldn’t solar panels be the best solution for Africa?