Sunday, April 1, 2012

Barefoot College Turns Rural Women into Solar Engineers

Located in Tilonia village, 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the capital of the western desert state of Rajasthan, Barefoot is a collection of environmentally friendly dome-shape buildings

Inside these buildings, about a dozen teachers take classes of pupils - mostly illiterate grandmothers from remote villages — teaching them the basics of solar engineering, dentistry, mechanics or public health, and even radio jockeying.

Everyone sat on the floor or leant on old desks, and almost everyone is poor, many are unable to read or write, and some of them hail from as far away as Tanzania in Africa.

Barefoot was started by social entrepreneur Sanjit “Bunker” Roy in 1972 and it has been breaking taboos ever since, educating women who are often second-class citizens and discouraged from getting an education.

Magan Kanwar, who teaches solar engineering, remembers being told by her father-in-law she should focus on knitting sweaters rather than dreaming of attending the school.

“But I just wanted to do something more than cooking and producing babies. This college gave me a chance to find the purpose of my life,” she told AFP.

Lots of the women at the school have heavy-drinking and abusive husbands, she says, the school gives them some independence with which they can secure an income and future for their children.

“If there’s no food for their kids at least the women can work and look after them, educate them, run the household,” she explained.

One of her pupils, 47-year-old Masamba Hameez Makami from Tanzania, will return home to install solar lanterns in her remote village that has no electricity, giving her neighbours lights at night for the first time.

Her stay at Barefoot is funded by the Indian government, which provided 28 scholarships last year for women from Africa to do the six-month solar engineering training programme.

The ministry finances several projects at the college under a long-term project to help women in African countries as well as regional allies of Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan.

“Very soon I will be able to electrify [provide electricity] my whole village,” says the mother of seven from Zanzibar.

To overcome the language barrier, Kanwar who speaks broken Hindi uses sign language and colour-coded circuits to explain the solar process to Makami who speaks Swahili, an east African language.

“We women have our own code words,” Kanwar says wryly as she solders electric wires to a circuit board.

Barefoot’s founder Roy, named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010, believes that the key to improving living conditions in poor areas is empowering rural women — the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day on Thursday.

Training older women rather than focusing on men is the key, he said.

“Men are very restless, compulsively mobile. The moment you give them a certificate they leave their villages,” Bhagwat Nandan, a senior coordinator at the college, told AFP.

“We deliberately confer no degrees,” he explained. “People are obsessed with the idea of getting degrees, certificates and recognition but we recognise the hands-on, learning-by-doing process.”

The model created by the 66-year-old Roy has since been copied in 17 states across India and has been emulated in 15 countries in Africa and several others in Asia and South America.

Courses typically last between six to nine months and are free for students thanks to funding from a range of donors including the Indian government, international agencies, as well as private and corporate foundations.

An estimated 10,000 women students’ have passed through its doors, while alumni are running over 800 night schools across India providing a multiplier effect as knowledge gets passed on by word of mouth.

The college is a model of grass-roots cooperation and frugality.

No one working there earns more than $150 a month but everyone receives a living wage, not a market wage. Living conditions are simple, with many classes taken on the floor.

The institution, powered entirely by solar energy, also makes sure nothing is wasted.

Bhanwar Gopal, an artist, prepares colourful masks for plays and puppet shows by recycling World Bank reports.

“We keep getting these reports that no one reads, so we decided to put them to some use,” Gopal said. “We use the World Bank paper to fight poverty and social problems in our own style.”


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