One tangible way of empowering women is to recognise and develop the potential of illiterate and semi-literate women to succeed in non-traditional areas not normally identified with women-like technology. Women put in such a situation have shown an awesome capacity to pick up sophisticated skills and provide services to their communities, thus destroying stereotyped images and roles in the process. Their confidence has made them fiercely independent and empowered them to be role models and leaders.
Today many rural women empowered in non-traditional roles are serving their own communities. They have not migrated to cities looking for any jobs. They have served as night school teachers, hand-pump mechanics, solar engineers, water engineers, architects, masons and fabricators of solar cookers.
Illiteracy has never been considered a barrier to women developing themselves as barefoot professionals and becoming independent. Illiterate women are handling computers and training unemployed youth in feeding technical, health, and literacy data.
Women have traditionally been very active in areas such as the provision of drinking water through repairing the hand pumps and constructing dams, thus making water more accessible through wells and tanks. But their role in spreading solar technology is totally new for them. Becoming barefoot solar engineers has liberated them from their traditional roles of being confined to the kitchen and looking after grandchildren.
For women who have rarely left their own village, it requires undeniable courage and endurance to leave their village for the first time to travel to a far-off states where everything, from surroundings, language, food and weather, to clothes, culture and habits, is different. The first month is a period of many adjustments in their lives but with time, care and support from their master trainers they learn to adapt.
“Learning by doing”organisation
Over 200 rural women have been trained from all over India and they have solar electrified over 20,000 houses. Electrifying houses provides additional income and a new level of confidence and leadership to the women. They serve as role models for young women in their villages. It also opens up other income generating opportunities for all women. They have used their evening hours to manufacture handicrafts - patchwork, sewing, hanging birds made out of waste, block printing, dyeing, embroidery, leather craft, wooden toy making and quilt making and other goods for sale- become rural entrepreneurs.
Rural women have run their own community radio stations. The community radio has been able to cover training camps, public events, fairs, padayatras and other rallies, demonstrations, and street plays and puppet shows thus demonstrating the collective power of women.
Barefoot College is a non-governmental organisation that has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities for more than 40 years, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable.
Mr. Bunkur Roy is the founder, director of the Barefoot College. He was selected as one of Time 100's 100 most influential personalities in 2010 for his work in educating illiterate and semi-literate rural Indians.