Barefoot College Solar Trainees Tackle Climate Change and Gender Injustices

Amarmani Oraon, an indigenous woman from the conflict zone of Chhattisgarh in India, learns to make a circuit for a solar lantern. Photo credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Amarmani Oraon, an indigenous woman from the conflict zone of Chhattisgarh in India, learns to make a circuit for a solar lantern. Photo credit: Stella Paul/IPS

In 2002, Magan Kawar left her village for a job – resulting in her being ex-communicated by her in-laws.  

“Women never stepped out of the house alone to go outside of the village and work in the office alongside men was a disgrace. My parents-in-law said I had brought them that disgrace.”

Eight years later, though her formal education never extended past 3rd grade, she is now one of India’s top renewable energy experts and lead instructor at Barefoot College in Tilonia, India – where rural women from across India and the world are trained in solar technology and installation.

The Barefoot College of Tilonia was established by an educationist and environmentalist named Bunker Roy. Roy wanted to build a place where women with little or no formal education could learn livelihood skills and play a leadership role in their communities. The College courses feature many different programs, including sewing, welding, and carpentry, but the most notable is a six-month bi-annual course in solar technology.

The solar program accepts women of 35 years or older mostly from economically or socially underprivileged communities living in area that may have little to no electricity.  Each solar trainee is selected by her own community and sent to the college by their respective governments where they are provided a fellowship by the government of India. This covers their cost of their stay at the college campus, including food and accommodation.

The current group of 30 solar trainees includes women from India, Myanmar, Syria, Mali, Sierra Leone, and Botswana and will be graduating on March 15, 2017. After completing the course, trainees receive $700 to use as seed money for starting their own solar business in their home countries.

Many of the women taking part in the training come from conflictzones and countries with social and economic injustices. Hala Naseef and Azhar Sarhan are from Damascus, Syria – where power outages are frequent and many live in fear of a grid collapse. Solar is not popular there, but it is possible that it will become the only source of power if the war does not end soon. “I miss home and the food…but to see other women who have come from difficult places, we forget our own struggle,” says Naseef.

As for Magan Kawar, who was disowned by her in-laws and went on to become a core teacher at the Barefoot College, she invited her in-laws to visit the college in person. “They came, saw me teaching and my mother-in-law said, ‘but it is just women educating each other!’ That day, she welcomed me back into the family”.