Summer 2006, a few months after I met Mr. Vasu Srinivasan at the Luminous Green Symposium organised by foAM, I decided to develop a project on the Women Engineers of the Barefoot College and the Women of Tilonia.
Diving into the matter, I quickly made up that a documentary movie had to become the central issue 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.
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.
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 to come to 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 start on, the decision to step into the solar project is community-based. The village selects and delegates its future women engineers for a 6 months training, and every village family engages itself to pay its share in the remuneration of the engineers to set up and maintain the village solar system. January 2008 I went a 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 35 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 70 per cent of India’s people -the barefoot – could only be solved by putting lost skills and economic self-sufficiency back in 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 are constructed out of local, low-cost materials and are designed and built by the ‘barefoot architect’, 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, 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. They help the villagers refind their traditional skills and to learn some new ones, such as the technology of solar energy.
Women solar engineers
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 women’s responsability 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 take 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 responsability. They have displayed their capacity and efficiency within their community, are respected and repeatedly used as examples to propagate and elevate women’s status.
Sustainable change at community level
In the west there may still be a gap between masculin and feminin interest in (art and) technology. Therefore we encourage strongly 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 set on women due to their responsable 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.
The hands-on learning does not come 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. A gain of respect and self respect, a gain of dignity from the community. A certain independence into 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 that is working towards a just and equal society.
The empowerment of the rural poor is their ambition.
Through a network of grassroots organisations they advocate in a vivid way for the position of rural women on a social and political level. Via the Mahila Samiti (womengroups) they stress the involvement of the women in the local politics and economics to improve their situation in an active way. 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 ‘a participatory democracy’ to make the people who rule understand that the common man 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 ecofeminists is to redefine how societies look at productivity and activity of both women and nature.
Since the early 90s, the ‘materialist ecofeminists’ focus 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 methaphorical way.
Vandana Shiva is an active eco-feminist. With ‘Diverse Women forDiversity’ 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, emergency of genetic engineering and patents on life forms.
Women’s ecology movements had shown how the dominant models of economic development and scientific progress were based on a particular construction of production and knowledge which 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 nature’s work and the integrity of ecological processes. In response to the ecologically and socially destructive and disruptive impacts 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 ecofeminist 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. (wikipedia)
This term brings us back to the starting point of this article: rural women empowerment through well-considered eco-technological solutions.
The time of my visit to Barefoot College early this year, the 6-month solar engineer training hosts participants from Buthan and Mauretania.
40 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 collegues-to-be without the use of a complex technical language. They share experiences and responsabilities along processes and methods that exceed the necessity of paper qualifications and even of a common spoken language. The endgoal is a respectful DIY improvement of their own life, and hence an improvement of their family situation and the social 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, the 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” and 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, all make 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 creates at once a social meshnetwork: a model nonexisting in the west.
In our capitalistic regions the big energy companies put their hands and power on the renewable energy sector, and they 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 to dive into the heart of the matter: 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 handfull of crazy artists experimenting on their rooftops with solar panels and home-made wind turbines: we fools have the task to enthousiasm little by little a small but interested public with the ‘artworks’ we make. For regular art lovers these works are nonexisting, 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
annemie_maes/okno/so-on holds a masters degree in fine arts and cultural studies. She is founder of <so-on>, a group of artists working with image, sound and technology. In their art projects they research the transversal field of installations, performances and audio-visual compositions. Their focus is to identify innovation and change while developing artistic projects, and focus on new aesthetical presentation techniques. As co-founder of OKNO, Annemie Maes is strongly involved in cultural activism, and is responsible for okno’s day-to-day management.