Women are considered the primary cooks in many parts of the world. Yet, I rarely came across studies examining how they perceive of the relationship between their cooking fuels and well-being. That is what drove me to understand women’s perspectives of using different cooking fuels and the effects on their wellbeing. I carried out a study in rural India from late 2016 to early 2017. I interviewed two groups of women who have and who have not transitioned to liquid petroleum gas (LPG). This enabled me to compare the perspectives of women who use firewood versus women who use LPG. Although it is generally accepted that using firewood has detrimental effects on women’s health, my study found that women have different views on the use of firewood and LPG on their well-being. That is, women who use firewood believe that it supports their well-being in multiple ways, and perceive no connection between LPG use and well-being. On the other hand, women who use LPG claim it has enabled their well-being. From this comparison, I learned that the underlying perceptions of cooking fuels influence the cooking fuel preference and use. It is important to understand these perceptions and consider them while designing cooking fuel transition interventions.
There is one more lesson that I learned during the data collection for the study, and that is to be open to make unplanned changes. I knew that I wanted to recruit women for the study, and I had thought it would be straightforward, for example invite participants, schedule a date and time, and conduct group discussions. As it turned out, I did way more than those few steps to engage with 70 women in 10 focus group discussions. Here are my key takeaways. First, I recruited a female interpreter, who helped me to approach women for interviews. That was a strategic suggestion made by my local partner organisation. Second, there was no such thing as 9 to 5 working hours and weekends in the villages. I conducted most of my focus groups after dinner at around 1930 hrs. Women did most of the cooking in the villages; they considered themselves responsible for feeding their families, which obviously came first in their priority list. Hence, almost all discussions were organised post-dinner. Third, the first few minutes of the first few focus groups were challenging because there were men interested in participating in the discussion. Women participants were clear that the discussions were meant for them only, but still there were a few men standing a few feet behind women participants answering the questions I asked. Again, I was able to deter them from participating in the discussions, thanks to my interpreter who convinced women to stop the men from responding to the questions. I do not think it would have been possible if I had a male interpreter.
Finally, I have no intention of validating the view that cooking is a woman’s responsibility. However, I strongly believe that studies focusing on cooking fuel transition should engage with women to understand their perspective relating to the cooking fuels they use.