WASHINGTON, Jun 1 (OneWorld.net) - In India, teams of "barefoot solar engineers" are bringing electricity to rural villages. The project -- part of a larger campaign to help Indian villagers be self-sufficient -- trains women to build and maintain solar energy units.
What's the Story?
The solar power initiative is run by the Barefoot College in Tilonia, a village in Rajasthan, India. Founded by Indian activist Bunker Roy in 1972, the college helps Indian villagers become self-sufficient and puts special emphasis on developing women's skills.
"Many have been inspired by women in nearby villages who left for Tilonia with hope and returned grasping the power of light," reports Sathya Saran in an article for Ms. Magazine. "Most of the women are unlettered, extremely poor and often widowed or abandoned. But their eyes blaze with newfound confidence."
Rural women from India, Afghanistan, Ghana, and Syria are trained at the college and then dispatched to train other village women -- who in turn pass on their knowledge -- to construct and run solar energy units.
Writes Saran: "these 'Sunshine Warriors' comprise a force for change that the college sends out to transform lives around the world." (See the full article from Ms. Magazine below.)
Overcoming the Energy-Poverty Trap
Roughly 40 percent of the world's population -- living predominantly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa -- do not have modern fuels for cooking and heating.
Of these 2.6 billion people, 1.6 billion "have no access to electricity, three-quarters of them living in rural areas," notes Share the World's Resources, a group advocating for sustainable economic practices that alleviate poverty.
In India, 220,000 villages lack electricity.
However, says openDemocracy's Alejandro Litovsky, hundreds of projects from Guatemala to India to Uganda "demonstrate the potential of energy innovations to overcome energy poverty -- a mix of wind, solar, small hydro, biomass power, or technology such as LED lighting."
These initiatives can enable the poor to set up small income-generating businesses and achieve autonomy and independence in energy generation.
"Off-grid projects are increasingly seen in areas where publicly regulated electricity grids have found it unviable to reach," continues Litovsky.
Moreover, he says, new sources of energy "can deliver real change on the ground, enabling citizens to access refrigerated medicines, light schoolrooms, power water pumps, and use mobile telecommunications -- but only if they are tailored to local needs and delivered in sustainable ways."
Poverty in Rural India
India's status as an emerging global superpower rests on narrow economic data drawn from its booming middle class of 50 million people, less than 5 percent of the population. Beneath this veneer, hundreds of millions of people face a daily struggle for essentials.
While varying interpretations of India's poverty figures have been made by the government and anti-poverty institutions like the World Bank, it is clear that vast numbers of households survive close to the poverty line.
Many development organizations like the Barefoot College have focused on empowering women to help these rural villages.
Additionally, "in the remotest corners of the country, women leaders have started questioning corruption, inefficiency, and lack of basic necessities in their villages," writes OneWorld South Asia's Manasi Singh.
Women in India
The voices of women in India are not always heard or respected, however. "Various social conditions have hindered and undermined the roles of women, denying them voices and opportunity to participate in public life," continues Singh.
Zahira Bano, a woman who ran for public office in India and lost, endured pressure and threats from conservative clerics when she became the first woman to contest election results "in a region heavily influenced by religion and tradition," says Singh.
"Maulvis [religious leaders] do not allow us to come to the fore and participate in the political process as they consider it blasphemy," Bano told Singh. "But nowhere the religion debars women. Take the case of Iran, Iraq -- where women have entered parliament."
A constitutional amendment passed in 1993 mandated that 33.3 percent of the seats in India's local governing bodies be reserved for women. Now, more than 1 million women from diverse backgrounds are serving as elected representatives.
There are, however, still cultural pressures working against women. One manifestation of this is a high incidence of ultrasound gender diagnoses, many of which are followed by an abortion if the fetus is a girl.
The gender ratio in India is 927 girls for every 1,000 boys under the age of 6. This is the most imbalanced gender ratio in the world, and it's declining further.
For more information on poverty, health, development, and human rights in India, see OneWorld.net's