Empowering Women through Electrification: Evidence from Tajikistan

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According to the United Nations Development Program, one in seven people on the globe lacked access to electricity as of 2011 and thus, one of the major targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is “ensuring universal access to clean and affordable energy by 2030” (UNDP, 2019). Electricity is considered as one of the most essential and crucial factors for human well-being and for socio-economic development as well as for empowering women. In the context of the developing countries, where oftentimes women live in harsh conditions and face discrimination due to various social, cultural and religious prejudices, lack of access to electricity is an added challenge to women’s daily burden and makes their lives even more struggling. In the missions and approaches of international development agencies, integration of gender issues and women empowerment is gradually being increased. Gender-based approach is also targeted by energy development organizations and projects, since empirical studies from some developing countries have shown that access to electricity does have an impact on women’s empowerment.

As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, many of its former member countries, including Tajikistan faced severe energy shortages among other political, social and economic challenges. The diesel generators, which worked on the imported subsidized fuel during Soviet era, were no more of use due to extremely high prices for the fuel. People could no longer afford to buy fuel for the generators and had to rely on other energy sources, primarily on wood, shrub, animal dung and biomass fuel in order to cover their basic energy needs, such as cooking, heating and lighting their apartments.

The most disastrous consequences of the energy crisis were felt in the eastern part of Tajikistan, in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO or Gorno-Badakhshan), where in some areas at an altitude of 2300 meters above sea level the temperature could fall as low as -45°C in wintertime. According to the World Bank studies, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 60% of the region’s inhabitants had no electricity in wintertime and the rest had no electricity at all (World Bank, 2012, p.1). Operation of hospitals, schools, child care centers and other public entities became problematic and sometimes they were even closed down as lighting and heating became almost impossible, especially in harsh winters. Consequently, lack of electricity became one of the hugest barriers for social and economic well-being of the region.

Women were affected by the electricity access and hindered from development the most, as in the context of the country most of the times they were the ones responsible for collecting firewood, preparing animal dung as well as for the electricity-dependent household activities, such as cooking and doing the laundry. Thus, this paper aims to give insight into how the lack of electricity hindered women from empowerment for almost 15 years in the Gorno-Badakhshan region of Tajikistan, and how electrification of the region in the early 2000s brought dramatic changes to lives of women. The case study for this assignment is the first public-private energy company in Tajikistan and in Central Asia-the Pamir Energy Company.

The paper will firstly give insight into the review of key concepts and theoretical approaches, such as women empowerment, women in development, energy and gender as well as defining the GBAO region of Tajikistan. Currently, there is no empirical study available on the impact of electrification on the social and economic development of the Gorno-Badakhshan region, nor on electrification and women empowerment nexus. Therefore, this assignment may lay a humble foundation for an empirical investigation of the role of electricity in women’s lives and their empowerment in Tajikistan, specifically in the Gorno-Badakhshan region.

Theoretical Framework

Review of the key concepts

In order to understand the role of electrification on women’s empowerment in the Gorno-Badakhshan region of Tajikistan, the key concepts and approaches, such as women empowerment, women in development, energy and gender need to be clearly understood. Moreover a brief glance should be given into understanding the context and specificities of the Gorno-Badakshan region within Tajikistan.

The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) lies in the south-eastern part of Tajikistan with a population of 220,000 people and is totally surrounded by the Pamir mountain range. The region was one of the most remote parts of Soviet Union due to being isolated by the mountains and the people are most commonly called Pamiris, after the mountains (Kanji, 2002, p. 138) People of the Gorno-Badakhshan somehow distinguish themselves from the rest of Tajikistan due to their religious, linguistic, cultural and traditional practices: they follow one of the most secular sub-divisions of Islam-the Ismailism branch of Shi’i Islam and are considered as Ismailis, while the rest and majority of Tajikistan’s population are Sunni Muslims. Subsequently, women’s lives in this particular region have also been different and “less” regulated than in the rest of Tajikistan (Kanji, 2002, p. 139).

The spiritual leader of Ismailis, the Aga Khan IV strongly supports the education and empowerment of women equally to men. Nevertheless, there exist a number of social, religious and cultural factors, which still place women differently than men in daily life and hugely decide on labor division based on gender. However, in-depth discussion of these patterns doesn’t fall within the scope of this paper, since this study aims to lit on how did the lack of electricity access for almost 15 years after the collapse of Soviet Union hindered women from development in this specific region of Tajikistan and how was the issue addressed with the formation of Pamir Energy Company.

Even though the women empowerment concept can be interpreted diversely with the context and aim of each study, for the purpose of this paper, women empowerment is seen according to the interpretation of Winther et al., who see it as “a process towards gender equality, understood as women’s and men’s equal rights, access to and control over resources and power to influence matters that concern or affect them” (Winther et al., 2016. p. 1).

Women in Development Approach

For ages women throughout the globe have been continuously facing challenges and discrimination in society due to multiple reasons. Traditions, social norms, religion, cultural prejudices, lack of access to certain rights and services (such as healthcare, water, energy, voting) and pressure of giving birth are example of some of the barriers, which brought challenges to women’s lives and continuously hindered them from development and from being involved in development processes and projects. One of the most prominent scholars who raised in the 1970s the issue of participation and involvement of women in the development practice was Ester Boserup. In her popular book “Women’s Role in Economic Development” Ester Boserup argued that shift from traditional agricultural activities towards the industrial had different impacts on the work and roles of men and women and the advancement in industry and technology were basically addressed at men, rather than women (Rathgeber, 1990, p. 2).

As technology and industry developed, the role and involvement of women in development became less visible. Boserup’s argument also laid foundation for emerging of the Women in Development (WID) approach, which thoroughly discusses the issue of participation and engagement of women in the development processes and programs. WID was first introduced as a term in the 1970s by the Women’s Committee of Washington, US, a network of female development workers, who were inspired by the work of Ester Boserup on the Third World development (Moser, 2003, p. 15).

Soon after, the WID term was transferred into an approach by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with a reasoning that women “are an untapped resource, who can provide an economic contribution to development” (Moser, 2003, p. 15). Now the WID was revised as an approach rather than a term and according to some scholars, such as Eva Rathgeber this approach means “integration of women into economic, social and political changes and developments”.

Furthermore, Rathgeber highlights that WID approach was also closely linked with the “modernization” paradigm, which assumed that industrialization will bring development and economic growth to countries and societies will turn from agrarian into industrialized and modern. It was subsequently assumed that with modernization and industrialization all aspects of life e.g. education, healthcare and living conditions will develop and the challenges will be tackled equally both for men and women. However, during the 1970s the modernization paradigm was questioned and the view of Boserup, who argued that the newly emerged industries and technologies were addressed at men rather that women, was confirmed.

The WID approach was therefore incorporated into the missions of international development agencies in order to make sure that women will be integrated into the development projects and initiatives equally as men. Projects gradually started to aim making women capable to generate income through specific skills and access to basic utilities, including electricity (Rathgeber, 1990, p 1-3). The approach of Pamir Energy Company for electrification of the communities in east Tajikistan is an example of such projects, whose mission included to release people, particularly women from burden of collecting firewood and to contribute to their empowerment. Through electrification, women were capable to educate themselves, to be engaged in small and medium businesses, to produce income, be financially empowered and to have time for enjoying other social activities, rather than collecting firewood for cooking and spending several hours for cooking a meal on fire.

Empowering Women through Electrification

Women in Tajikistan

Before Russians invaded Central Asia, hardly any woman in this part of the world worked and consequently men were financially and economically more empowered than women. The society was traditional, patriarchic and there was a huge gap between the social and economic activities of men and women. Labor was mostly divided based on gender. In most cases, men would enjoy absolute freedom for access to education, right to work and social life, while women were limited to traditional household activities, cooking, cleaning and taking care of their children. As soon as Tajikistan became part of Soviet Union, women started to enjoy the same rights as men regarding access to education, professional career, political representation and other aspects. Subsequently, during the Soviet epoch, both the proportion of literacy and working women in Tajikistan increased.

During the 1950’s for instance, the percentage of working women in soviet Tajikistan was about 40%. The rise of the proportion of working women was on the one hand due to the change of the regime and system and on the other hand due to loss of men during the World War II. After the collapse of Soviet Union in the 1990s the proportion of working women all across Central Asia continued to increase even more and was almost the same as in Russia. The reason for such dramatic increase was mass migration of the population, particularly the men to Russia. 90% of the total people who left Tajikistan for working abroad in 2009 were men (Igarashi and Kumo, 2016, p. 5-6)

Moreover, women were quite remarkable in politics of soviet Tajikistan and their political representation was even higher than in most European countries (Falkingham, 2000, p. 5). Sadly, enjoying freedom and equal rights did not last forever for Tajik women. The situation dramatically changed with the fall of Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Transition to market economy along with political and economic crisis in the country led to the situation that women lost their jobs at first stance. In most parts of Tajikistan women faced discrimination almost in all aspects of their lives (e.g. in health, education and social rights). Rebirth of both wrongly interpreted Islamic and traditional Tajik values placed women again in adverse position, where their primary job was to take care of their household and their children, not being capable to work and grow neither personally nor professionally.

Even if women worked, they were involved in the “lowest paid sectors of agriculture, education and health, where their wages were insufficient for life”. In 1998, 30% of the women in Tajikistan were employed in the agriculture sector and their monthly wage was as low as $6 per month, which was not even paid in some cases (Falkingham, 2000, p. 8) Engagement of women in low-paid jobs also meant that women voluntarily withdrew from the labor market as it made no sense to work on the extremely low wage. Women were generally hindered from many economic and social activities due to different religious and cultural prejudices.

Though, in the Gorno-Badakhshan region of Tajikistan the population differs somehow culturally and religiously from the rest of the country, which made the conditions and lives of women also different. According to some scholars, the Pamiris-the inhabitants of Gorno-Badakhshan were never “neither real Tajiks nor real Muslims”, because their linguistic, cultural and religious background is different from Tajiks (Kanji, 2002, p. 3). These people practice one of the most secular subdivisions of Islam-the Ismailism branch on Shi’i Islam, while the rest and majority of Tajikistan practices Sunni Islam, which has more conservative views, when it comes to “freedom” of women and their access to education, healthcare and social life.

Energy Crisis in post-Soviet Tajikistan

In 1991, after the collapse of Soviet Union, Tajikistan gained its independence among the 15 other former members of Soviet Union. Transition to market economy, high unemployment rate, political/economic instability and energy shortage were the troubles that followed the country for the next decade after it gained independence. Moreover, Tajikistan hugely suffered from a devastating civil war (1992-1997) and long-lasting civil unrest in the years after. Women were the first to lose their jobs and were the ones affected the most by the new transition (Falkingham, 2000, p. 14). Among all other challenges, the crisis in energy sector made women more vulnerable and hindered their empowerment more and more. Tajikistan was no more able to sustain its Soviet-inherited electricity infrastructure and had severe energy crisis as in its urban, so in the rural areas. The most disastrous consequences of the energy crisis were felt in the Gorno-Badakhshan region, which was a mountainous region with severe cold winters, and the catastrophic energy crisis made socio-economic life in the region even worse.

In the late 1990s about 60% of the region’s inhabitants had no electricity in wintertime and the rest of the population had no electricity at all (World Bank, 2012 p. 1). Due to lack of electricity many public entities, such as schools, hospitals and child care centers were forced to close down, especially in severe cold winters. As a consequence, women had to take care of their children all day-long by themselves, which hindered them from any kind of income-generating or social activities. Textile and manufacturing industries, where women predominantly worked were also closed down due to lack of electricity and many women lost their jobs as a result. Reports from Tajikistan revealed, that in most cases, prior to electrification it were the women (sometimes helped by children) who were responsible for collecting the firewood as well as for cooking, cleaning the household and other activities which needed electricity (Droux and Hoeck, 2004, p. 88).

Meanwhile, it is well known that collecting, transporting and using the firewood, especially in the mountainous terrain is a hard physical work and often had obvious adverse impacts on women’s healthcare. Women reportedly suffered from different health-related issues: they complained about backaches and problems with kidneys because the firewood and shrub they carried was sometimes too heavy; they suffered from respiratory diseases, and eyes turned red due to overuse of wood and dung, as it caused lots of smoke, especially in winters, when it was used indoors; women had headaches and lost hairs due to collecting and transporting the firewood under hot sun during summertime. (Droux and Hoeck, 2004, p. 115)

Moreover, women were hindered from economic and social activities and development, because they had to spend so much time both on collecting the firewood and on all other activities that were electricity-dependent. Sometimes the source of firewood was also too far and in dangerous, mountainous locations and it took women on average 3 to 4 hours daily collect it and carry back home (Droux and Hoeck, 2004, p. 98).

Pamir Energy Project

The importance of paying attention to energy development projects and policies in the world and particularly in developing countries can no longer be neglected, since energy is closely linked with economic and social well-being of the society. In the middle of 1990s the availability of electricity started to mean globally saving time, generating income and improved standard of living for women and thus, the concept of energy and gender mostly broadened (Winther et al., 2016. p. 11). With emerging of this concept it became utmost important to integrate the needs and interests of women into the energy development projects and policies worldwide and Tajikistan was not exclusion. Initiating of an electricity access project, which would ground a stepping stone towards addressing the needs and challenges of the community, and particularly of women was extremely important in the early 2000s.

To address the severe energy crisis and the challenges that the people and in particular the women faced, in 2002 as a result of concession agreement, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the government of Tajikistan formed Pamir Energy Company-the first public-private project (PPP) of its kind in Tajikistan and in Central Asia. As per the concession agreement, the newly formed Pamir Energy Company took over the responsibility of generation, transmission and distribution of electricity for Gorno-Badakhshan for a period of 25 years (2002-2027) with limited, damaged Soviet-inherited hydropower infrastructure.

Yet, despite all the challenges, within 15 years of its operation, the company was able to achieve high success: 96% of the population of GBAO was electrified in 2012 vs 13% in 2002; the region’s major hydropower plants as well as other electricity infrastructure was systematically rehabilitated and electricity supply was increased from three hours to 24 hours; the current supply service across Gorno-Badakhshan is also far better than in most parts of Tajikistan (World Bank, 2012, p. 2). Moreover, the company has proven successful evidences of empowering women through electricity access in this most remote area of Tajikistan. With electrification, women significantly saved time and energy, had better health conditions, gained access to educational resources, felt more secure and were capable to generate income.

First and foremost, with access to electricity women in Gorno-Badakhshan were entitled to a crucial resource, which is time. Study by Sovacool et al (2013) shows that using of electric households appliances can lead to saving of more than 6 hours per day (Polansky, 2018, p. 11). Cecelski (2000) points out that cooking is women’s most important energy need in terms of both time and effort and in developing countries with lack of electricity biomass is continuingly being used as the main source of cooking energy (Cecelski, 2000, p. 26). With access to electricity in Gorno-Badakhshan since 2002, women could significantly save time and spend it on other activities according to their priorities. Moreover, the women, who were economically more empowered, could also afford to buy and use washing machines for their laundry and save plenty of time, rather than heating water for hours daily and doing laundry manually. This evidence was supported by a local woman from a recently electrified village in the Gorno-Badakhshan, who pointed in an interview, that: “I used to have to wash clothes manually for 4 hours every two days. Now it is 30 minutes in a washing machine, so I have lots of time to do other things like spend time with the children” (Aga Khan Foundation UK, 2017).

Education is one of the driving forces for women’s development and empowerment. Unfortunately there is no empirical research from Tajikistan available on the contribution of electricity to school/university attendance and literacy rate of girls and women. However, a wide range of literature from other countries shows that there is a link between electricity access and educational patterns, specifically for women. A research from Bangladesh, for instance, revealed that in households without access to electricity the female literacy rate is lower by 20% than in those with electricity access (Polansky, 2018, page. 8). Similar study conducted by the World Bank in India found out that with electricity access girls’ enrolment in schools increased by 14%, thereby largely contributing to reducing of the gender gap (Winther et al. 2017, p. 14). With availability of electricity girls and women have more time, energy and enthusiasm to contribute to their studies, since they do not lose time and energy on collecting firewood. Also, with availability of light bulb they have the opportunity to study in the evenings, which is hard to do with candle or kerosene bulb. With electricity access women are also capable to use modern electronic technology, such as computers, television, radio, have access to the internet and be “on the same page” with the rest of the world.

Research from Burkina Faso documented that with access to electricity women had time and energy to work more on agriculture and to increase both the quality and quantity of their products (Rathgeber, 1990, p. 7). Similarly, electrification of the Gorno-Badakhshan region meant that women had now more opportunities for employment and have significant contributions to the income of their households and even be financially independent. They could get involved in small and medium enterprises, such as bakeries and could do small handicraft activities in the evenings, for which the fire stoves and candle light were insufficient prior to electrification. In the Gorno-Badakhshan of Tajikistan, where agriculture was one of the primary source of income, with electricity access women could produce agricultural products not just for the need of their households, but they could sell the surplus product in the local markets.

Women also started to generate income by producing home-made jams, juices and bakery products. Prior to electrification these activities were extremely time-demanding. Electrification also made women to feel safer and secure, as with the availability of streetlights they felt more comfortable to walk during the evenings and coming back late from work or any social gatherings became less problematic. Overall, as electricity arrived, the self-confidence of women raised to a certain extent as well. The felt no more isolated from the world, they could watch news, use the internet for different purposes, use modern electric appliances and simply enjoy clean, light houses without smoke from burning the wood and dung. A more precise and empiric research needs to be carried out in order to assess the impact of electrification on women’s social and economic empowerment, for which the current paper may lay foundation.


The fact that electricity is one of the major factors that drives the social and economic well-being of people is no more denied. Lack of clean and reliable electricity is today one of the major problems of developing countries, where often times the rural population suffers with finding alternatives for electricity to cover their daily energy needs. This paper has demonstrated that lack of electricity in one of the mountainous regions of Tajikistan has become particularly challenging for women and hindered them from social and economic development for almost 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Electrification of GBAO since 2002 has played a significant role in development of the region as a whole, and in transforming the lives of women in particular.

With access to electricity, women were practically driven “out of the dark” to meet their new opportunities, to discover and use their untapped skills and resources for self-empowerment and to improve their lives. During its 15 years of operation, the Pamir Energy Company in GBAO did not only show a successful implementation of a public-private partnership model to provide reliable, clean and affordable electricity, but also an effective tool to empower women in one of the most remote corners of the world. An estimated 220,000 people have benefitted from electrification through Pamir Energy, half of which are women.

Moreover, schools, hospitals and other public entities are able to stay open and operate even during the cold wintertime, which was absolutely impossible prior to Pamir Energy. (World Bank, 2012, p. 1) Women have been relieved from huge burden of collecting firewood and biomass fuel to cover their domestic energy needs, which had adverse impacts on their health, economic and social conditions. With access to electricity, women and girls can now spend more time for their self-development, personally, academically and professionally. They are able to use modern science and education technology, produce income independently and enjoy social comfort.

Currently, there is no sufficient literature available on the impact of electrification on the lives of women in Tajikistan and this paper may serve as a basis for an in-depth empirical study on this topic. Since women have been identified as the most prominent beneficiaries of electrification in Tajikistan, it is further highly recommended to involve women as much as possible in designing, planning and implementation of any kind of energy policies, programs and projects for Tajikistan in the future. Although 96% of the Gorno-Badakhshan is at present electrified, there are still some rural areas that lack access to electricity since the fall of the Soviet Union. There are still girls and women, who abandon school and jobs for the sake of collecting firewood daily for hours, who suffer from indoor smoke because of cooking on fire stoves and who are simply unaware of how much comfort can a single electric light bulb and stove bring to their lives.


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Empowering Women through Electrification: Evidence from Tajikistan. (2021, Oct 31). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/empowering-women-through-electrification-evidence-from-tajikistan/

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