Household Air Pollution, A Gender Issue

SI UN Representative, Mary Muia blogs from Nairobi about the effects of household air pollution and the need to empower communities and encourage policy makers to heighten their awareness and ensure their commitment to reducing this common health hazard.

“Millions of women cook on stoves or fires that fill the room with thick smoke from polluting fuels such as wood, dung and coal. This poses an enormous risk to health. Imagine yourself in a room where 400 cigarettes are being smoked every hour and you will get some idea of the exposure to harmful emissions. In a world where women are vastly overburdened with exposure to household air pollution from polluting and unhealthy home energy sources, this is a highly gendered issue that demands global attention.

According to the latest World Health Organization data, “air pollution causes over one third of deaths and disability from strokes, lung cancer, and chronic respiratory disease — and over a quarter of heart disease. All in all, it is responsible for one in every 8 deaths worldwide. About 7 million people every year”-Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General WHO.

Elimination of Indoor Pollution – Chepkube stoves energy saving and smoke free built with chimney – Project of SI President Appeal – Women Water and Leadership


SI Union of Kenya worrking to empower rural women to eliminate indoor pollution throught the SI Presidents Appeal Project, women, water and leadership


Sarah Kuri lights fire to prepare a meal for her family. Photo Courtesy SI Club of Meru Kenya

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP or UN Environment) annually organizes events to World Environment Day (WED), which encourages worldwide awareness and action for the protection of environment. It is commemorated on 5th June in over 100 countries. The commemorations began in 1972. The day involves raising awareness on emerging environmental issues from marine pollution, human overpopulation, global warming, sustainable consumption and wildlife crime. In 2019, China will host the global World Environment Day celebrations on the theme, ‘Air Pollution’.  Since its inception, the WED celebration has grown to become the single largest celebrations of our environment each year.  Some air pollution facts indicate that; 92 per cent of people worldwide do not breathe clean air, air pollution costs the global economy $5 trillion every year in welfare costs and that ground-level ozone pollution is expected to reduce staple crop yields by 26 per cent by 2030.

Air pollution critically affects the environment and human beings. Generally, air pollution is caused by presence of toxic substances in the atmosphere mainly produced by human related activities. Approximately 7 million people are adversely affected annually due to air pollution related causes worldwide, 4 million of this population is from developing countries and further, approximately 13 million people suffer from diseases resulting from exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution and household exposure to smoke (cook stoves and fuels).

Household air pollution: a gender issue

The effects of exposure to household air pollution are horrendous. For women in low- and middle-income countries, it is the single leading environmental health risk and a main cause of diseases like strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and heart disease. More than 60% of all premature deaths from household air pollution in 2012 were among women and children.  Clearly, household air pollution is not an issue for the health sector alone. Health professionals need to work with other organizations and individuals from across society to understand the problem, allocate resources and develop plans to tackle it. Whatever approaches are taken, they must address the fundamental issue of gender inequality. As well as suffering much more than men from household air pollution, women and girls in low-income countries also pay more with their time and effort. A World Bank study of village transport in Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia in the early 1990s showed that women worked almost three times longer than men transporting firewood, water and other household essentials – usually with their own hands, heads and backs – and carried four times the volume. This has serious implications for women’s rights and life chances, because many girls are out collecting firewood and water while their brothers are at school.  

SI Union of Kenya-SIs Presidents Appeal Project trains women to make energy conserving cooking stoves


Clean Air, Our Responsibility: (Kiswahili, Hewa Safi Jukumu Letu)

Vehicular emissions contribute to increasing air pollution levels in Nairobi County. Therefore, it is important to use this year’s WED event as a platform to create awareness on challenges experienced due to air pollution. The Kenya National Environment Management Authority-NEMA has partnered with Nairobi County Government in preparation for the event. Soroptimists clubs in SI Union of Kenya will join hands with other stakeholders in Kenya’s capital City to tree planting, panel discussion, Golf tournament and clean-up exercise to commemorate 2019 WED.

The energy conserving cooking stoves are an Income Generating Activity-IGA for most women groups working with SI clubs in Kenya Union


Prevention is Key:

There is an urgent need to create awareness among people about the indoor air pollution and the serious threat it poses to people’s health and well-being. Education should help women in finding different ways of reducing exposure with better kitchen management and protection of children at home for cleaner indoor air. Cleaner, better quality air will improve energy at work and home activities because polluted air saps your over-all energy level by making your lungs and  the rest of your body, work harder, thus reducing your efficiency. Breathing cleaner air will allow your organs (especially your lungs) to work better, usually leading in better oxygen absorption by your brain, making you mentally keen and more energetic.

Some climate-change mitigation strategies could include more efficient use of fossil fuels for industrial processes and electricity generation, switching to renewable energy (solar/wind/wave power), increasing the fuel efficiency of vehicles, improving the insulation of buildings, growing new forests, nuclear power and carbon sequestration. It is generally accepted that efforts in all these areas will, at best, prevent further warming but not reverse existing warming.

There is no question that prevention is the best medicine by far, involving soroptimists worldwide and all the stakeholders for improvement—not only the public, but also policy makers to ensure their commitment and awareness about health effects of indoor air pollution”.



  1. Marlène can Benthem 12 months ago 5th June 2019

    An important gender link is blindness caused by the smoke of indoor cooking! Scientific research also shows eye infections with children sleeping near a stove.
    Thats why the Soroptimists in Kenya train the women in building inhouse stoves having a pipe that leads the smoke outside the House.
    The blindness of mothers because of inhouse smoke is big problem!

  2. Prisca Otipa 9 months ago 6th September 2019

    This is an initiative that has already taken off and it’s a great relief to women.

    SI Kenya congratulations for implementing this clean and healthy way of preparing food the African way


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