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Why four grandmothers are champions of solar power in the Philippines

Four women from an indigenous group in rural Philippines were trained as solar engineers in India. Soon, they'll be changing lives, one light at a time.

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    In this photo taken Monday, March 16, Evelyn Clemente, Magda Salvador, Cita Diaz, and Sharon Flores pose in front of solar-powered lanterns after returning to Manila from India, where they trained to be solar engineers.
    Pia Ranada/Rappler/File
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Solar power is about to be the next big thing in Evelyn Clemente’s village in the Philippines, and she’s one of the reasons why.

On Monday, Ms. Clemente and three other women – all members of an indigenous Filipino group called the Aeta – returned to Manila from Rajasthan in northern India, where they had spent the last six months learning to build, maintain, and repair solar-powered lamps as part of a training program for impoverished women, Philippine news outlet Rappler reported.

The women, all grandmothers, trained at Barefoot College, a school that focuses on building sustainable communities by teaching rural women technical skills in areas traditionally dominated by men. These include dentistry, metalworking, and solar engineering, according the school’s website.

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“Now I am not just a woman or a grandmother or a mother. I am a solar engineer,” Clemente said in Tagalog at a press briefing, according to Rappler. “What men can do, I can do and do it better.”

Despite the Philippines' rapid economic growth (a little more than 6 percent in 2014), about a quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line. A persistent power shortage across the nation has also led to rolling blackouts that cause businesses, consumers, and wage workers to suffer, especially in rural areas. Sending the four women abroad to train in solar engineering – a skill that is not only sustainable and empowering but actively useful to their communities – sends a message of support for the sectors of Philippine society that are most affected by social and economic inequity: Indigenous peoples, rural communities, and women. 

On a broader scale, Clemente and her colleagues’ experience highlights a growing global movement to empower women – particularly those in developing nations and rural areas – to take on leadership roles and effectively usher in progress. 

“Gender equality is … a precondition for advancing development and reducing poverty,” according to the United Nations Population Fund, which leads the UN’s initiatives for healthy and productive lives for women and families. “Empowered women contribute to the health and productivity of whole families and communities, and they improve prospects for the next generation.”

Increased educational attainment, for instance, accounts for about half of economic growth in the last 50 years among countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to a 2013 report. Much of that has to do with providing girls access to higher levels of education, as well as closing the gap between men and women in terms of the number of years spent in school, the report found.

Better educated women also have a positive impact on the lives of children. An analysis of data from 219 countries between 1970 and 2009 found that more than 4 million deaths among children younger than 5 were averted during that period as a result of improvements in women’s education.

And education doesn't always have to come in the form of college degrees on fancy paper. Barefoot College, where Clemente learned her solar engineering skills, boasts of having trained more than 6,500 rural women as midwives, handpump mechanics, radio operators, and night school teachers – providing them with opportunities for employment and improved statuses in their households and communities. 

"The Barefoot College believes that ‘literacy’ is what one acquires in school, but ‘education’ is what one gains from family, traditions, culture, environment and personal experiences," reads the college's website. "Both are important for individual growth." 

In the Philippines, Clemente and her now solar-trained cadre of grandmothers intend to put their new expertise to work.

With support from the Philippine Mine Safety and Environment Association, the Land Rover Club of the Philippines, and Diwata, a local women’s empowerment group, the four women will install solar panels in 200 households in their local communities, Rappler reported. In return, the communities will pool funds to pay the women for installing, maintaining and repairing the lamps, giving them a means of livelihood they can then use to send their own kids and grandkids to school.

Although 200 isn't a large number, bringing affordable electricity to even that many homes could be life-changing in a rural community. In Tanzania, for instance, solar power has helped thousands of people in out-of-the-way villages save money of fuel for lamps and improve health and communications. A similar change for a rural town in Botswana has allowed women to reduce time spent on household chores and children to focus on studies at night. 

As one Botswanian mother, in talking about her own kids, put it: “It is a changed world for them,” according to the UN Development Programme

For Clemente, there's also the hope that she and the other grandmothers can pass on their knowledge, and in turn give the same opportunity for empowerment and employment to others in their community.

“The biggest thing was that we learned to make solar lanterns. If ever, if there are funds, we want to improve on what we learned and teach other mothers,” Clemente said.

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