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How fuel-efficient stoves protect women in the Congo

DR Congo, December 17, 2009

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December, 2009

Mercy Corps' Cassandra Nelson talked to CNN's Heidi Collins about our work to help protect women, girls and the environment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - all with a low-tech, easy-to-use stove.

COLLINS: All right. Well, we will certainly be watching as those tensions rise. Appreciate that. White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux this morning.

And now speaking of the environment, a really interesting story. There's a charity out there with a simple mission. Buy fuel-efficient stoves for refugee camps in the Congo. But the goal is huge. Protect the women there from what is often referred to as a pandemic in the region: rape.

Cassandra nelson works with the charity Mercy Corps and just returned from the Congo and has this story for us.

It's nice to talk with you, Cassandra. I know you just came back week before last. I want to put the story out there in the right light because there's some information that people may not know here. Let's talk about how much firewood it takes. I was pretty amazed by the tonnage per day that is required per day in order for people in the Congo basically to eat or to get any type of warmth or whatever it is that they may need. That's something like, what, 169 tons of cooking fuel, which again is firewood, that's needed every day.

CASSANDRA NELSON, MERCY CORPS: Exactly. And that -- really, we're just talking about the displaced population that Mercy Corps is originally working with. So, if you look at the fact that there is nearly one and a half million displaced people in 2009 in eastern Congo and start to do the math, the amount of firewood that's need in that country is incredible.

COLLINS: Yes. And so, then what happens is typically, the women are the ones who go out and get the firewood.

NELSON: Exactly. It really is the woman's job in the Congo culture to be the firewood collectors. And what we see, particularly when there's displacement camps and very large populations of people concentrated, that the environment around those camps gets completed deforested.

And what that means for the women, though, is they have to go farther and farther out into very thick forests alone. Or maybe just with their children, and it's a very dangerous place for them because, unfortunately, it is a country that's filled with men with guns. And we found just a huge instance of women who are raped or harassed or have some kind of violence inflicted on them.

COLLINS: Yes. In fact, you say something like 90 percent of these women who have experienced violence like this.

NELSON: Yes. We did a baseline survey last year and found that 90 percent of the women that we surveyed had experienced some kind of violence or harassment when they had been out collecting firewood.

COLLINS: That's unbelievable. OK, so you come in and say how do we cut down on not only the deforestation but also the violence these women experience, and we're going to come up with a way that will help them not to have to go out and get so much firewood with this fuel- efficient stove?

NELSON: Exactly. What Mercy Corps is doing is designed fuel- efficient stoves that actually require about 75 percent less firewood. And so what that means is essentially that it means 75 percent less time that you have to go out into the forest to collect the firewood to actually do your cooking...

COLLINS: Yes. How does it save so much?

NELSON: Well, the way it's designed, it's a highly efficient stove. It's a clay stove. It's made with all local materials. And what we've done is we've trained the people there to actually make the stoves themselves, so it's not something we have to provide to them. They make it...

COLLINS: Yes. We're watching that right now on the screen next to you, just so you know.

NELSON: Okay, oh great. Those are our technicians that were trained on how to make them. We've made about 30,000 stoves so far. And the great thing is they learn to make these stoves, and then they can also start small businesses themselves by making the stoves and selling them, as well as we're distributing them for free to people who can't afford to buy the stoves.


NELSON: It just burns at a very high temperature, and so the wood is completely burned. The old style or traditional style of cooking is just to kind of have three stones and toss a bunch of wood on it, and it's very inefficient. The wood just is never fully burnt and is not very hot.

COLLINS: Yes. Understood. So, have you been able to gather any statistics or feedback on the effect of all of this, and if it's been able to help, not only with the deforestation but also cutting down on this violence against the women?

NELSON: Well, we are actually just about to do our next survey, so -- because we did our baseline survey last year. But what we have found is if we take the numbers and look at 10,000 stoves going out to 10,000 families, cooking over the course of one year, what we're saving is we're saving about 13,000 tons of firewood on an annual basis. That's just for about 10,000 stoves.

So, the numbers are fantastic. And it's one of those programs that is viral in a way in that now that these people know how to make these stoves, they start to build them themselves. They don't need Mercy Corps there to do all the work for them. We train them, and then they can go out and carry this on so it can spread from community to community. So that way, in the long term...

COLLINS: So self-sufficient.

NELSON: ... So a long-term impact.

COLLINS: Self-sufficient is good too. I'm still very interested in how we can measure or find out if the violence against the women, because the women -- they're not having to go back so far out into the forest, is cutting down. Are they telling you, hey, I feel a little bit safer, I'm glad that I'm able to stick around the camp closer because I'm not having to go out so much?

NELSON: Definitely. I mean, one thing I do is I spend a lot of time in the camps talking to the women that use those stoves. And I asked them, I said so what's the biggest change in your life? Do you like the stove? And every single woman I talked to was incredibly happy with their stove, and the number one reason was they said, "I don't have to go out and collect firewood anymore. I feel safe."

And so, the security for the women is really the most important part. I mean. our broader aims are certainly climate change issues and others as well as protection of women. But for the women, it is the protection that is so good for them.

COLLINS: Understood. All right, we'll be watching closely all of these ideas. Cassandra Nelson with Mercy Corps, thanks for your time.

NELSON: Thank you.