Making energy poverty a human rights issue – Mweshi’s story

Women walking barefoot down a road carrying firewood above their heads
Headshot of QECS scholar Mweshi

After 12 years of waiting to do her post-graduate, Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarship (QECS) scholar Mweshi Chibangulula is currently pursuing a research topic close to her heart. Energy poverty is a key issue underpinning inequality in developing countries like Zambia. As a current Human Rights (LLM) student at the University of Pretoria, and a research advocate in the Constitutional Court of Zambia, Mweshi wants to add a meaningful voice to this issue. Read about her experience below.

It is estimated that only 70% of the Zambian population has access to sustainable energy, and even that access is not secure. Energy poverty - a lack of access to efficient energy services - is an issue which affects many developing countries and communities, particularly women in rural areas. While the topic of energy poverty has been interrogated from various perspectives, it’s been sparsely discussed from a human rights perspective, let alone the African context. Zambian born, QECS scholar Mweshi Chibangulula, wants to change this.

‘I'm coming from a country where there are so many inequalities and one particular crisis plaguing my country is energy poverty. Only about 7 million of the population have access to clean and efficient energy. Even those with access suffer long hours of load management due to insufficient power generation. Load management refers to balancing the supply of electricity on the network with the electrical load by adjusting or controlling the load rather than the power station output. Access to alternative sources of power is also hampered by the costs involved. The majority of Zambians rely on wood fuel - an inefficient and harmful form of energy. The Ministry of Energy reports that about 80% of Zambians rely on this form of energy.’

As a research advocate in the Constitutional Court of Zambia, Mweshi credits her interest in human rights to her environment growing up. ‘There was a lot of social injustice, which is why I took on law. I have always sort of been a crusader so to say and looked to add my voice and energy in service of my country. I have always thought that we can do better. For me, championing human rights is key to addressing a number of social issues, with poverty being high on the list. Human rights seek a reasonable standard of living for all by virtue of being human beings, and the importance of protecting, respecting and promoting human rights in a highly polarized society cannot be over emphasised’, Mweshi explains.

Mweshi wants to shift the human rights discussion away from solely talking about laws and treaties. ‘There are times when you feel like human rights are non-existent, and just document-based because you cannot actually see the substance and impact of them on people’s lives’, Mweshi explains. She wants to bring in other aspects - such as the lived experience of real people and communities - to give it meaning and force. Studying a multi-disciplinary Master of Law (LLM) in Human Rights at the University of Pretoria (with a QECS) is step towards this goal.

With a passion for human rights, energy poverty is an issue which remains close to Mweshi’s heart. Women from rural communities in Zambia are deeply affected by energy poverty. ‘They're the ones who have to use substandard sources of energy which put their lives at risk. They spend so many hours in the bush or in the forest trying to collect firewood instead of having access to clean energy. The World Health Organisation reports that wood fuel is very harmful to users and emits significant greenhouse gases’, Mweshi recalls.

To address this, Mweshi’s research at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, will focus on how human rights can help address energy poverty and how civil society organisations can champion this cause to hold the State accountable. During her preliminary research into the issue, she was concerned by her findings. ‘It was not encouraging really, I could not find a single Civil Society Organisation that is interested in energy poverty’, she reflects. ‘This will have to change, access to clean energy is no longer a policy issue - it is a legal entitlement.

Despite these initial concerns, Mweshi believes that by learning from others, change is possible. From supportive lecturers, to meeting motivational people with common and shared interests, Mweshi regards studying at the University of Pretoria as one of the highlights in her life. The experience broadened her perspectives on a range of different issues useful to south-south collaboration.

I am studying in a fellow African country, so I am not looking at something foreign - we have common problems. I am learning how South Africa is interrogating similar problems to the ones was have in Zambia. That is priceless. It is important to study abroad, venture out if you have the opportunity to do so in order to see how you can give back to your country.

Not only did studying at the University of Pretoria expose Mweshi to new perspectives, it also helped to develop her research and writing skills.  ‘I'm hoping that with my increased knowledge base and exposure, I'll be able to render in depth opinions in my role as a research advocate.’ Looking to the future, Mweshi hopes to revise the human rights curriculum in Zambian institutions of higher learning through writing and lecturing.

Studying a multi-disciplinary degree has been an eye-opening experience for her. ‘Being a lawyer comes with the risk of being ‘boxed in’, so this course has enabled me to break the mould and try and see how you can integrate the law with other aspects and intersecting fields’, Mweshi explains. When asked about advice for others interested in applying for QECS, Mweshi’s vision is clear.

‘QECS provides such an invaluable opportunity for one to pursue further studies, so give it a shot. In so doing, direct your passion to a cause greater than yourself because to be fulfilled in life, I believe you have to look away from yourself. If there is anything that COVID-19 has taught us, it is that whatever affects the next person also affects us in one way or another. It does not matter how much better off we are. So, seek to study something that advances a greater cause than advancing your own interest only. I encourage prospecting scholars to look to human rights as a way of giving back and making our society better.’

More information

A Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarship (QECS) is a unique opportunity to study for a two-years Master’s degree in low or middle-income country of the Commonwealth.

Aimed at students who are committed to creating change in their communities, the scholarships are a life-changing opportunity to experience a new country and culture, to broaden horizons, and to build a global network that will last a lifetime.

Through cultural exchange and academic collaboration, QECS Scholars help bring about positive change and find solutions to the shared challenges we face – both in their home countries and those that host them. As an active part of the Commonwealth network, scholars will help shape its future.

Please read the FAQs for more information.