“It is time we focus on women.” These are the renowned words of Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, the founder of Barefoot College. Set up in 1972, this extraordinary college located in the village of Tilonia, 110km south-west of Jaipur, India, teaches rural women—many of them illiterate—how to fabricate solar panels, lights and photovoltaic circuits. With these new capabilities, accredited “Solar Mamas” return home to shed light on their communities.
Around the world, life is difficult for women, perhaps most so in the rural areas of developing countries like India, where harmful traditions run deep. In fact, 47 percent of girls surveyed in a 2014 Unicef report said they were married by the age of 18. The Indian state of Rajasthan, home to Barefoot College, has the highest rate of child marriage in the nation. Upon entering womanhood, everyday household tasks become exhausting and time-consuming for these women, as a lack of electricity makes everything that bit more difficult. The World Bank estimates that one Indian household in every five still lacks access to electricity and figures run as high as one in every two for rural areas. Many households depend on kerosene oil for lamps or cooking, potentially exposing themselves to future respiratory or sight problems.
The peaceful grounds in Tilonia, spread over eight acres, run entirely on solar energy maintained by the Barefoot solar engineers. Over 15,000 women from 83 countries have received training in various skills here, but the “Solar Mamas” remain the centre’s most impactful graduates, providing light and power to over 1,200 villages and 500,000 people worldwide. Many of these women, despite having never set foot inside a classroom themselves or learning to read, now watch their children peacefully do their homework in the evening, or their neighbours shuffle from field to hut after a day spent tending to cattle with a solar lamp in hand.
The methods employed at Barefoot College work towards 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are a set of targets and indicators that UN member states should work towards in hope of eradicating poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring peace for all humans worldwide by 2030.
Any woman worldwide over 35 years of age, and from a remote, inaccessible area without electricity, can enrol for the solar engineering course, provided she has backing from her village. The “Solar Mamas” respective governments arrange their passports, visas and transport to Barefoot College, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs provides a fellowship that covers the cost of their stay in Tilonia. The training programme lasts six months. Two groups are taught simultaneously, each consisting of 20 Indian and 40 foreign women, hailing from Latin America, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa. Language barriers are no problem for the “Solar Mamas,” for though their spoken languages differ, their past life experiences and hopes for their communities’ future unite them. Practical lessons are taught using a colour coding system that doesn’t depend on the use of spoken language or written word.
“Women have a great potential to act as agents for sustainable change and poverty reduction because, unlike men, they connect emotionally with what they are doing,” said New Zealander Meagan Fallone, CEO of Barefoot College. She added that the solar energy engineering courses help women develop leadership skills, meaning that when they go back to their villages, they’re able to challenge with greater confidence the discriminatory gender stereotypes that once handicapped them.
One of the best parts of the programme is the ripple effect. Women return home, motivated to train others in solar engineering. Melekuini Numela, 51, from Tuvalu said she would replicate the model by installing solar lanterns and panels in her village and sharing her newly acquired expertise with local women. Fallone also explains that “Solar Mamas” experience a substantial increase in their income following their time at Barefoot College, offering a further source of empowerment and confidence boost.
25-year-old Indian Santosh Devi has been able to break the caste barrier with her training as a solar engineer. Being a Dalit [communities illegally discriminated against by people of higher caste in India], she was previously isolated and not allowed to interact with the people belonging to so-called higher castes. “I am now a solar engineer who can install and repair lights and panels for the villagers. People of all castes come seeking my help. I had never imagined that this would be possible in my village,” she proudly said.
Fallone regretted that there was, at large, mistrust in the society regarding not-for-profit organisations, and that the philanthropic contributions they received were inadequate. She adds that regular funding would help sustain initiatives such as Barefoot College.
What’s sure is that with the “Solar Mamas,” life is now looking a whole lot brighter for rural communities in India and across the world. Barefoot College is a perfect example of just how strong and capable women are when provided with sufficient educational opportunities.
(Pictures by Sandeep Saxena)