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More power to your grannies

24 May 2011
by Brian Keeley

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If you want a solar engineer, get a granny. That was the message of Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, founder of India’s Barefoot College at a session on women’s economic empowerment at the OECD’s 50th Anniversary Forum.

Mr. Roy explained that there was little benefit in training men from rural villages — “men are untrainable, they are restless and compulsively mobile,” he said. “There’s no point in training them, because when they get a certificate they leave the village.” So, his Barefoot College instead trains grandmothers – women who have usually never left their home village and have little wish to do so. “Grandmothers come screaming onto the plane,” he told the audience, “they hate leaving their lives behind.”

But if the journey is painful, it’s also worthwhile, especially for the home villages of the women. As Mr. Roy explained, the college has trained hundreds of women from India and further afield, including 200 women from across Africa. “Through sign language, not through the written word, we trained these women to be solar engineers,” he said.

Once they return home, they’re keen to pass on their knowledge – another characteristic that distinguishes them from the male counterparts: “If you train a man, he doesn’t want to pass on his knowledge for fear of losing his job,” said Mr. Roy. For the village, electricity can be transformative. Solar lamps mean there’s light for midwives when they’re delivering babies. Access to power also means there’s more for people to do once night falls, which helps cut down the birth rate

Mr. Roy’s reflections were just part of a fascinating discussion on empowering women, and the impact that has more widely for societies. Melanne S. Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, argued that there was no better way to drive economic growth than women’s economic empowerment. “Women who run small and mediums enterprises are growth accelerators,” she said.

From North Africa, Nizar Baraka, a minister from the Moroccan government, said events in the region this year showed there was a real demand for recognition of people’s dignity – and, “in order to have dignity we need gender equality”. That meant ensuring women had access to employment, he said, and the opportunities to create their own enterprises. In the Middle East and North African region, he said, women accounted for only about 10% of entrepreneurs, compared with 30% in OECD countries. But, he said, progress was being made, with the creation of a range of “incubators” and mentoring programmes to encourage women to set up their own businesses.

Useful links

OECD Gender Initiative

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