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Women lighting up lives

A partnership between the Barefoot College, the Government of India and UNDP’s Small Grants Programme enabled “solar engineers” to bring energy to their community.

What would you say if I told you that it doesn’t matter whether you can read or write to become a solar technician? Would you believe it’s possible?

Stella, an illiterate grandmother from a small village in Malawi, found hard to picture what lay ahead when she arrived at the Barefoot College. However, she was not alone in this. Iris, Carmen, Alnora and Ingrid, women from remote corners of Honduras were sceptic, they could not believe how they could learn to install, maintain and repair solar energy equipment in six months.

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“I never imagined that technical knowledge like this would be open to women who were illiterates, like us.” Stella reflected at the end of her training in Tilonia, in the state of Rajasthan. “But coming to Tilonia has given us this confidence that we can learn about new things and make our lives better.”

These women learned their skills through the solar energy programme at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, India. The institution is a pioneer in the field of teaching complex technological processes to illiterate students. Their six-month “solar engineers” study programme was made possible through a partnership between the Government of India and the Small Grants Programme (SGP), a programme supported by the Global Environment Fund (GEF) and UNDP.

The initiative has expanded to 18 countries. As a result, 71 women have been trained as solar engineers, who electrified 3,778 households in 52 villages. Women and girls have been benefited, as they are now able to bestow more time to education and income-generating activities.

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“We didn’t have any diplomas like students at a normal university,” says Alnora Casy. “In India, we learnt using a practical approach. We brought back a lot of knowledge to benefit our communities and, in a sense, to help them to escape from poverty.”

To ensure the sustainability of the project, they are taught how to train others in the maintenance of lamps and panels, and encouraged to set up electronics repairs shops, which will generate a regular income.

Not everything is as easy as it seems, though. The programme can be a formidable challenge for women. Their trainers, who mostly speak Hindi, must cut across linguistic and cultural barriers using gestures and signs.

“In the beginning, many women face problems, since it’s the first time they have left their children and village,” says Leela Devi, a teacher in the solar engineer department. “But we have to be like their sisters, and constantly remind them of the advantages of being here and learning solar engineering.”

Gertrude Damiano from Malawi tests one of her solar lights.

Nevertheless, the desire to light up their communities and empower others has proven a unifying bond. In just six months, students have shown that they can transcend tremendous barriers and emerge as self-sustaining solar engineers and change-makers.

This partnership is changing women’s lives around the world; women who never believed it was possible for them to achieve something bigger and contribute to their communities in a different way.

Imagine what we could do if we all unite; we could build a better future for the developing countries and have a powerful impact in the world and in other people’s lives.

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