The non-profit Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children has introduced a series of recommendations to significantly reduce incidents of violence against women and girls in areas of conflict.
Firewood is basic to survival as a source of heating and cooking fuel in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons. Yet the Women's Commission says millions of women and girls risk rape, assault, abduction and even murder every day while collecting firewood.
Carolyn Makinson, director of the women's group, says the risks associated with firewood collection have been known for years.
"Perhaps the worst thing about this is that these women and girls venture out knowing that this is going to happen to them," she noted. "They have to venture out three or more times a week and they know that there is a good chance they will be attacked. And we know this, because when we have asked in communities why it is women who go out rather than men we have been told that if men go out they will be killed. If women and girls go out, they will only be raped."
The Women's Commission initiated a project to find ways to reduce the vulnerability of women and girls in camps, focusing on sites in Darfur, Sudan, and Bhutanese camps in eastern Nepal.
In its report, the commission recommends a number of simple strategies to reduce the frequency and the amount of firewood collection. These include using fuel-efficient stoves that can reduce the consumption of firewood by as much as 80 percent and training in fuel-efficient cooking techniques, such as pre-soaking beans.
Anjana Shakya works with refugees in Nepal where more than 160,000 Bhutanese refugees live in seven camps. The United Nations delivers weekly kerosene rations, but she says the cost of kerosene has doubled in last two years and it is often unavailable due to blockades by an insurgency. She particularly supports the recommendations for developing alternate fuels and income-generating activities.
"Refugee women have been resistant to alternate fuels, because kerosene is easy to use and they depend on its sale as a key source of income to subsidize other needs such as clothing and higher education," she explained. "They then collect or purchase firewood to use as cooking fuel."
Several private and U.N. groups are dealing with the issue. But the Women's Commission says the United Nations should designate a single agency to coordinate fuel-related initiatives. And the group calls for greater physical protection for women when they collect firewood.
Thoraya Obaid, the head of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), says firewood and fuel must be considered and coordinated in future humanitarian response and protection efforts.
"Right now in Darfur, for example, UNFPA and the gender-based violence committees are working with the African Union civil police to set up escorts to insure security of women and girls during firewood collection, to establish monitoring in the IDP camps and increase deployment of female civilian police staffs," she said. "At the same time, the Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO, and OXFAM have established training programs on the use of fuel efficient stoves."
For too long, Obaid says, issues involving fuel and cooking have been viewed as women's issues, instead of issues of human rights and security.