Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Women Barefoot Engineers

Gulab Devi (45) of Harmara village in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district comes across as the quintessential rural woman from Rajasthan. Dressed in the traditional ghagra-choli (long skirt and blouse), Gulab is the sole bread-earner for her four children and her ailing husband who hasn’t had a job in the 24 years of their marriage. Gulab is completely illiterate. Ask her what she does for a living, and she’ll tell you she makes electronic circuits and charges for solar lighting panels. And before you start wondering whether you heard her wrong, she’ll tell you that she also installs and maintains hand pumps, water tanks and pipelines. Not only is she running her household comfortably with her salary from this work, she is also one of the most respected members of her community.
~ "Illiterate solar engineers who light up villages", The Tribune (India), 2-2-2003
Women from rural poor communities in Africa, Asia and South America have traveled to Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India to learn how to assemble, install, and maintain solar-powered lamps and electrical systems for their villages. Many of the program's participants are only semi-literate, and graduates receive no degree or certificate when they have completed the program. The idea is to provide the benefits of engineering to poor communities without the need of "engineers with papers".

Watching the video made me realize that I've internalized stereotypes of what a person wielding a soldering iron looks like. The women in traditional dress assembling electronics are a far cry from the nerdy-looking MAKE-reading, HP calculator-carrying engineers of my imagination.

(via Metafilter)

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autumnmist said...

What's really interesting about this, I think, is what happens if this becomes more widespread. I can imagine a few things happening:

1) engineering might become seen as a "female" job in these areas and women gain respect overall from this
2) engineering might begin to be perceived a "female" job and becomes devalued as it is a "woman's job"
3) as men see that women are gaining respect and financial freedom from their work and take it away from them (e.g. force the women to teach the men these skills and then the men take over)
4) village-level engineering like this ends up dominated by women but the most lucrative jobs in the cities still stay with men