Last week I had the opportunity to attend the first TEDWomen conference in Washington, DC.  Over the past two decades I’ve attended at many women-centered forums, but this was the most intense and wide-ranging, attracting around 600 overwhelmingly female delegates and 50 mainly female speakers. True, most speakers and participants were American, but we also heard the voices of inspirational women from around the world who are creating and making change. In our own way, we all participated in the conversation, and an incredible collective conversation it was.

The driving force behind this event, Pat Mitchell, I heard described last year as a woman’s woman.  She’s also a feminist’s feminist who has been a mentor and role model to me and I suspect hundreds of other women over her celebrated career as a journalist.

We listened to women tell about their struggles and stories,  like a mother-daughter doctor team from Somalia; National Geographic filmmakers Beverly and Derek Joubert; India’s top cop Kiran Bedi; the ‘man-box’ originator Tony Parker; environmental commentator Naomi Klein; patient capital pioneer Jacqueline Novogratz; Phyllis Rodriguez, who lost her son in the World Trade Center on September 11 and Aicha El-Wafi, mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is serving a life sentence without parole for conspiring to kill US citizens; surprise speaker Hilary Clinton; and concluding presenter, the irrepressible, extraordinary Eve Ensler.

Former Canadian politician, UN Ambassador and UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Steven Lewis, who I had never heard speak before, delivered an impassioned, blistering attack on the UN for failing women in terms of violence, rape, HIV/AIDS and other critical issues.

Wow, I thought, there’s another form of violence that no one’s talking about – it’s silent, visible as wispy black smoke and it stinks – it’s kerosene. Brought to us by oil companies, and the entire energy supply is virtually entirely men even down to the local kerosene sellers,  this highly flammable fossil fuel is largely unregulated in the developing world.  Kerosene or paraffin, as it’s also known, violates a woman’s eyes and lungs (made much worse if she is HIV positive or has TB).  According to the World Bank, 780 million women and children inhale fumes equivalent to smoke from two packs of cigarettes a day.  Two-thirds of lung cancer victims in developing countries are women.

When I was in Kenya’s Maasailand earlier in the year, I asked 90 rural kerosene-dependent women how many had suffered burns on themselves or their children and at least 20 women raised their hands.  A few told stories of fires that cost them dearly, including the lives of a loved one.  Some shared how their children had ingested kerosene believing it to be water.

If ‘fuel–based violence’ impacted men in the same way, something would have been done by now to ensure the poorest had some form of access to modern energy.  But because women in Africa so often have only a small voice — or none at all — millions are suffering scratchy blood shot eyes, acute respiratory illness, asthma, chronic bronchitis and even pulmonary disease.  It’s time we all step up and help poor women everywhere access clean energy.

So thank you, Stephen Lewis, for giving me an additional frame in which to encase the deadly consequences of kerosene usage.  And thanks to all the wonderful people who staged such a powerful
two days and who gave so openly of themselves.

by Kristine Pearson in Washington, DC.

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