On Women’s Empowerment: The women engineers of the Barefoot College and the women of Tilonia

Annemie Maes

Annemie Maes is co-founder of okno, an artist-run organisation working with art and technology, and is responsible for okno’s day-to-day management. She is a media artist and activist. Her artistic research and cultural activism projects are publicly presented as the ongoing project “politics of change” – Daad (Do and act Differently), with a focus on the topics of women empowerment, ecology and public space. During the summer of 2006, a few months after the Luminous Green Symposium organised by foAM, she decided to develop a project on the Women Engineers of the Barefoot College and the Women of Tilonia.

Introduced to the Barefoot College project, I was struck by certain similarities between my own relatively protected work environment and the specificities of the trainings/workshops in Rajasthan.

Diving into the matter, I quickly made up my mind that a documentary movie had to become the central focus in the project. My interest for the women solar engineers and the Mahila Samiti women of Tilonia comes out of a personal involvement that links art, women empowerment, ecology, technology and social engagement.

The film is based upon an interplay between a place, a project and some key persons. The place is Tilonia: wide, rude, dry red landscapes in the middle of nowhere, Rajasthan. The project is the Barefoot College, a non-hierarchical Indian organisation, the initiator of training workshops and coordinator of the structure for the socio-political Mahila Samiti women groups. The key persons are some of the women I met during my visits to Barefoot and Tilonia. Women that are not afraid to go for a change. I decided to make a film on these women, because their behaviour attracted me. Their life, their courage, their actions. The decisions they take, decisions that go against the usual traditions. Illiterate or semi-literate, they all play a key role in the development of the training centre, the night schools and the women groups advocating for social/political women’s rights.

Okno, a Brussels-based artist-run organisation for media, art and technology, focuses on social art and community-based technological research projects. To be more specific: current projects research the implementation of sustainable energies as solar/photovoltaic and wind energy in community-based city and meshnetworks and public space art projects. Belgian and international artists work together in a DIY-approach and during the decentralised workshops the sharing of knowledge is an important factor in producing valuable results.

The solar engineer training at Barefoot College, India has a similar structure: productivity results from collective work; the learning environment is open and decentralised and knowledge is passed on in a bottom-up and hands-on way.

From the start onwards, the decision to step into a solar project is community-based. The village selects and delegates its future women engineers for six months of training, and every village family assumes responsibility to pay its share in the remuneration of the engineers to set up and maintain the village “solar system.” In January 2008 I went for the first time to Barefoot College to meet and interview the solar engineers. There I discovered that the solar workshops are only a very small part in a much bigger story concerning the empowerment of the women in question.

The Barefoot College's mission was set out thirty-five years ago in the district of Tilonia in Rajasthan, one of the poorest states in India. In 1972 a group of middle-class city intellectuals came to Tilonia with the conviction that the poverty and powerlessness of seventy per cent of India's people could only be solved by putting lost skills and economic self-sufficiency back into their hands, Mr. Ramniwas tells me while showing me around the campus.

This collection of functional buildings and houses with running water and all powered by solar energy is constructed out of local, low-cost materials and has been designed and built by the barefoot architects, an illiterate farmer from Tilonia, and by local masons. The Barefoot College campus stands as a model for the regeneration of land and people.

Like Mahatma Gandhi, the Barefooters believe power resides with the poor. Poor rural people have dignity but they do not have the opportunities. The Barefoot College's agenda is to work with this human potential. It helps the villagers rediscover their traditional skills and to learn some new ones, such as the technology of solar energy.

Unless women are equal partners in the process of electrifying the villages, no solar project has any hope of making a lasting impact. With women actively involved, not only in the decision-making but also in the actual implementation, the environment will not be destroyed or abused.

The approach in the project of providing lighting to remote non-electrified villages has been one of confidence building. The solar engineer project has demonstrated that providing lighting through solar energy could also be a woman’s responsibility for the household in the near future. Most of the solar engineers come from traditional and conservative societies and they have struggled to fight for their identity. The women engineers have been gradually accepted by the village communities and are respected for the work they do. These rural women have become symbols of a new partnership within the family because unless their husbands and families agree, they still are not allowed to make a decision on their own.

In traditional and conservative societies the identification of women as engineers is a delicate and sensitive issue. While in some areas within the household the decisions taken by women are respected, the influence of society-at-large still restricts the freedom of women to chose. The training of Barefoot women engineers, although first regarded with suspicion, is now gaining more popularity among the rural people. It provides an additional income and gives women a larger sense of independence and responsibility. They have displayed their capacity and efficiency within their community, are respected and repeatedly used as examples to propagate and elevate women's status.

In the west there may still be a gap between masculine and feminine interest in (art and) technology. Therefore we strongly encourage a 50/50 gender participation in the workshops we organise, and one can even mention a positive discrimination of women. In India the focus is placed on women due to their responsible and central position in the family and in the village community as it concerns the provision of basic needs as water and energy. Different context, different needs, different goals but similar methods.

Hands-on learning does not emerge from a proper interest in the subject but originates out of a basic social need: get a job, improve the financial position of the family, the social position of the community, and through these insure and improve the individual position. Gaining respect and self-respect, gaining dignity in the community. A certain independence within the family.

Aruna Roy, a founding member of the Barefoot College, was convinced that the rural women (and men) needed more than financial self-sufficiency: they needed political power too. With a collective of social and political activists they started MKSS: The Association of Workers and Peasants, a non-party people's process, working towards a just and equal society. The empowerment of the rural poor is their ambition. Through a network of grassroots organisations they advocate for the position of rural women on a social and political level. Via the Mahila Samiti (women’s groups) they stress the involvement of the women in local politics and economics to actively improve their situation. DIY-change with the means of education, knowledge-sharing and self-government.

In demanding a law for the right to information, the people were establishing their desire to be part of the democratic framework in which they would be given a fair hearing and their views would be taken into consideration while forming policies. The goal was to establish the concept of participatory democracy, to make the people who rule understand that the common man (and woman) now wants his or her share in governance.

And what about the environment in times where climate change and intellectual property rights are key challenges facing worldwide sustainable development?

One of the missions of the eco-feminists is to redefine how societies look at the productivity and activity of both women and nature. Since the early 90s, the materialist eco-feminists have focused on the actual conditions of women and less on the mystical link with nature. They discuss economic and political issues and use the link with Great Mother Earth in a metaphorical way.

Vandana Shiva is an active eco-feminist. With Diverse Women for Diversity, a programme of her Navdanya organisation, she seeks to herald a global campaign of women on biodiversity and cultural diversity. Diverse Women for Diversity echoes women's voices from the local and grassroots level to global fora and international negotiations. Over the years, Diverse Women for Diversity has evolved a non-violent resistance and opposition to globalisation, and the emergence of genetic engineering and patents on life forms.

Women's ecology movements have shown how the dominant models of economic development and scientific progress are based on a particular construction of production and knowledge which has excluded women and Third World communities as producers of economic value and as generators of intellectual value. Economic globalisation deepens this exclusion and hence becomes a threat to the survival and integrity of local communities.

The emerging forces of economic globalisation are dramatically structuring systems of production and systems of knowledge generation and utilisation. Globalisation is further rendering invisible and destroying women's work and intelligence, and the evolution and integrity of the ecological processes of nature. In response to the ecologically and socially destructive impact of globalisation, women and local communities in India are organising afresh in new and emergent struggles for survival.

The use of technologies such as solar power makes it possible to stay off the grid, which is regarded as extremely important by the eco-feminists. However, it is clear that an intermediate technology, appropriate technology, would be preferred by the eco-feminist movement.

Appropriate technology is designed with special consideration to the environmental, cultural, social and economic aspects of the community it is intended for. With these goals in mind, appropriate technology typically requires fewer resources, is easier to maintain, has a lower overall cost and less of an impact on the environment than high technology. Appropriate Technology usually prefers labor-intensive solutions over capital-intensive ones, although labor-saving devices are also used where this does not mean high capital or maintenance cost. In practice, it is often something that might be described as using the simplest level of technology that can effectively achieve the intended purpose in a particular location.

This term brings us back to the starting point of this article: rural women empowerment through well-considered eco-technological solutions.

At the time of my visit to Barefoot College early in 2008, the six-month solar engineer training course hosts participants from Buthan and Mauretania. Forty women in total, working together in an open environment where a hands-on sharing of knowledge is the most important factor. Indian pioneer solar engineers teach their Asian and African colleagues-to-be without the use of a complex technical language. They share experiences and responsibilities along processes and methods that transcend the necessity of paper qualifications and even of a common spoken language. The end goal is a respectful DIY improvement of their own life, and hence an improvement of their family situation and the local communities they live in.

Because the social factor is as important as the knowledge factor, the Barefoot Women's approach to technology is open and without intellectual limits. The participants feel free and learning becomes a kind of a game between the teacher and the learner. Starting from scratch, homo ludens discovers the tricks of new tools and as such unveils a creative approach towards technology.

Flusser said: Change is informative, the familiar is redundant. As none of the technical matter is familiar to these women, the participants are eager to learn and approach the subject with a pristine interest. The fact that the workshops operate with simple, appropriate technology, and knowing that the training focuses on hands-on understanding for setting up and maintaining the solar systems, ensures that even illiterate people feel comfortable with the appropriation of these new technologies. This bottom-up approach also guarantees a truly distributed access to energy, which at once creates a social meshnetwork: a model non-existing in the West.

In our capitalistic regions the big energy companies put their hands and power on the renewable energy sector and create top-down models of green energy distribution. A setup in which a lonely ecologist player quickly gets lost. The high technology used in the West is frightening for non-professional engineers, and as we're acting out of a luxury green position and not out of basic needs, we're not too interested in diving into the heart of the matter: to learn to know every part and connection and understand how the stuff works, and make it work yourself!

Therefore it's incredibly important to organise workshops on these issues. Even if it's only a handful of crazy artists experimenting on their rooftops with solar panels and home-made wind turbines: we fools have the task to enthuse little by little a small but interested public with the artworks we make. For regular art lovers these works are non-existing, because they don't feel the need to know about alternative meshnetworks and moving city nodes created by simple use of a prepared techno-bicycle. But one day, those players that know how to stay off the grid will be the lucky ones!

Brussels, February 2008

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