This article celebrates the International Day of Rural Women, 15 October, 2014.
In 1972, Indian social activist and educator Bunker Roy began a radical initiative in the Indian village of Tilonia that now, over 40 years later, is revolutionizing rural development on a global scale. The Barefoot College, as it came to be known, is an educational institution built by and exclusively for the rural poor. The objective of the college is to give marginalized, exploited and impoverished rural poor, and women in particular, access to the tools and training they need to lift themselves out of poverty.
Grounded on Ghandi’s teachings, the Barefoot College works to promote self-sufficiency in rural communities by leveraging rural traditional knowledge and decentralizing access to sophisticated technology. According to Roy, “It’s the only college in India where, if you should have a Ph.D. or a Master’s, you are disqualified to come. You have to be a cop-out or a wash-out or a dropout to come to our college. You have to work with your hands. You have to have a dignity of labor.” Here, professionalism is redefined; individuals, irrespective of their age, gender or income, are trained as doctors, engineers and architects.
The Barefoot College focuses on areas that foster community development: solar energy, clean water, education, improved livelihoods and grassroots activism. Since it began, 37,000 rural individuals have been trained in a wide variety of skills that help improve quality of village life. And, rather than receiving a formal certificate upon completion, their credentials are legitimized by the communities they serve.
One of the most notable initiatives being run by the Barefoot College is a solar electrification program that is bringing light to non-electrified, rural villages. The program, offered exclusively to grandmothers, trains 100 women in India and 80 women from the world’s least developed countries to become solar engineers. The grandmothers undergo six months of training at the Barefoot College in India where they learn how to harness solar energy. After completing the training, they return to their respective villages where they bear responsibility for creating light, maintaining new solar technology and training other women to do the same.
Since this innovative program began, 740 Barefoot solar engineers – all women – have been trained from around the world bringing light to 450,000 rural people in 1,160 villages. Grandmothers were specifically chosen to help foster gender equality, but also because older women have strong roots and influence in their villages.
The Barefoot College began in one small rural village and has grown into a global movement spanning thousands of villages in 64 countries. So what made this simple idea so successful? First off, it celebrates the knowledge and capacity of the rural poor. The College is built on the idea that sustainable solutions can come from within the community. It also eliminates a lot of the barriers – money, education level, age, gender etc. – that prevent rural actors from gaining modern skills and demystifies modern technologies that can improve village life.
As Bunker Roy puts it, “you don’t have to look for solutions outside. Look for solutions within. Don’t listen to the World Bank, listen to the people on the ground. They have all the solutions in the world.”
To learn more, visit www.barefootcollege.org or check out Bunker Roy’s TED Talk below.