Empowering Women Series – When you encounter a glass ceiling, do you break it or accept it?

In traditional Indian villages it is usually taboo for women to move out of their homes without being accompanied by men folk. This story tells us about women who went beyond the confines of their homes and villages to bring electricity via solar energy to light up their lives in more ways than one.

barefootsolar-ed02On the edge of Rajasthan where shifting sand dunes mark the border between India and Pakistan, four villages have had their dark nights lit up by incandescent bulbs running on renewable solar energy. The villages, which are a series of homesteads scattered across an undulating dessert landscape of the western Indian state of Rajasthan, have never been connected to the power grid. The lights they now have are part of the Government of India and United Nations Development Programme project ‘Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihoods’ that trained and engaged village women as “Barefoot Solar Engineers” for generating renewable solar energy.

Four young women – one from each village – have assembled these lights from scratch and are paid to maintain and repair them. It took a leap of faith and a great deal of persuasion for the families to allow the four women to be trained to serve their own communities. The Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) which implemented the programme in Barmer district of Rajasthan, runs a residential training programme for women from selected villages at its campus in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan.

It was unthinkable for the four families to have their daughters leave home let alone go and live among strangers. The four women have attended school only up to class five or eight. None of the four had ever lived away from their families or travelled much further than a neighbouring village, and never without a male escort. Three of them, Sajani, Saleemati and Chano are married. Like all married women in their communities they wear veils. The fourth, Bhagwati, is engaged to be married. “No one in the village has ever done anything like this, people said that boys should get the training, and then we were told that the project would only train girls. It took people a long time to accept this,” says Bhagwati.

HY15--SOLAR_LIGHT__2154420f“In the evening we would leave the village with an agreement that the girl could go; in the morning we would return to find that they had changed their mind,” a project officer working with the SWRC recalls.

After much persuasion, Bhagwati, Sajani, Saleemati and Chano spent two months at SWRC’s campus in Tilonia and a month of field training. Following this they assembled each of the lights and lanterns installed in their villages and oversaw their installation. Now, they undertake regular checks in the village, respond to complaints, repair faulty lights and maintain the batteries that power them.

SWRC has also set up a workshop at its centre in Dhanau in the same bloc. Repairs that cannot be done in the village are brought to workshop. The four women travel on the irregular buses that connect their villages to Dhanau when their work demands. They spend a day, or if the work necessitates, a few days at the centre each time.

sub_22In the villages there are many still bemused that young women who until a few months ago were like any other – cleaning the yard, fetching water, helping with the cooking – are now called “engineers”. But, they would rather have lights irrespective of who is maintaining them. Each family with a light contributes to a village fund from which their woman “Barefoot Solar Engineer” is paid a salary ranging from Rs.1,000 to Rs.1,350 a month. And the villages are full of little girls, who trail their barefoot engineer and watch in awe as she fiddles with wires and fuses, hoping they too will someday be engineers.