A Sudanese refugee in the Iridimi camp

A Sudanese refugee in the Iridimi camp stands by a craggy tree. The dearth of firewood at camp drives women and girls into the bush to find fuel.

AP Photo/Ben Curtis

­In one Darfur refugee camp in Chad, thousands of women have learned a whole new way to cook. Instead of relying on the usual wood-fueled fires, families are eating meals cooked by sunlight. Solar cooking could be saving their lives.

More than 17,000 people live in the Iridimi refugee camp in western Chad. Chad lies just to the east of Sudan, next to the Darfur region, where civil war has forced millions of people from their homes. Back in 2003, all hell broke loose in Darfur when government forces cracked down on Darfur rebels seeking social change to improve the lives of black African Sudanese. What followed was an extraordinarily violent conflict, with government forces and Arab Janjaweed militias fighting non-Arab rebels and slaughtering civilians. As of 2008, at least 200,000 people have been killed, and 2.5 million people are displaced [source: Polgreen]. Hundreds of thousands of them are living in temporary camps in Chad.

In the Iridimi camp, as with many other camps, the occupants are mostly women and children, as a large number of Darfur men have been killed. The women are tasked with caring for their own families and for orphans, and that means feeding everyone in their care with supplies distributed by aid organizati­ons. Each month, the World Food Program gives each family a month's worth of food and firewood. The food typically lasts the month. The firewood doesn't.

According to people actively involved in the working­s of the Iridimi camp, the firewood lasts less than a week. Women and girls have to collect more wood so they can prepare meals, but there is hardly any vegetation in the camp. As time goes on, they have to venture farther and farther from the camp to find firewood. This leaves them exposed to violence. Women and girls are routinely raped, beaten and murdered by not only the Janjaweed but also by Chad locals afraid the Darfur refugees are going to use up all of their scarce resources.

In 2006, the nonprofits Jewish Watch International, KoZon Foundation and Solar Cookers International successfully launched a program to bring solar cookers to Darfur refugees, beginning with the Iridimi camp. The idea is to help keep women and girls a little bit safer from violence by reducing their need for firewood.

­In this article, we'll find out what solar cooking is about and what sorts of benefits it brings to the refugees. As it turns out, it does even more than increase security.