Are Women Better at Getting Out of Poverty?

Solar Mamas: Why Poverty? (2012)

Directed by Mona Eldaief and Nehane Nonjaim

Film Review

Solar Mamas is about the Barefoot College in Rajastan India and the struggles of a Jordanian woman to overcome the sexist attitudes of her husband and other men in her Bedouin village.

The Barefoot College is a non-governmental organization which has training rural women from the developing world to become solar engineers since 1997. The program serves the dual purpose of electrifying poor rural villages and helping these villages out of poverty. After completing a six month training program, the women return to their home countries to train other women in solar installation.

The documentary concerns the first two women selected by the Jordanian Minister of the Environment to attend the Barefoot College. The women come from a village of 300 where all the adults are “unemployed” and the women do all the work (collecting firewood, doing laundry, cooking, cleaning and looking after children). Women with young children receive welfare benefits, which is why the Jordanian government is keen to subsidize their attendance at the Barefoot College.

As the Jordanian women speak no English, their training is based on hands-on assembly experience, aided by a book of color-coded circuit diagrams. Both women are illiterate, as it’s considered shame for Bedouin girls to remain in school past age ten.

Are Women Better at Getting Out of Poverty?

The film focuses on the younger of the two women, who’s forced to discontinue her training after her husband threatens to divorce her and take her children away. Rafea’s mother is caring for her four children during her absence. The husband threatens to take them to another village to be raised by his first wife (he has two).

Rafea returns, tearfully. A month later, despite her mother’s opposition and continuing threats from her husband, she overcomes her fear of her husband and returns to India to complete her solar training.

Towards the end of the film, the Minister of the Environment explains why the Jordanian government only selects women for solar training: they can’t count on men (who often have other wives) to remain in their home village.

If Rafea’s village is anything to go by, I suspect the real reason is that the women develop a stronger worth ethic in looking after their children. The men, in contrast, are bone idle and lay around on mattresses all day.

Below is a presentation by Bunker Roy, founder of the Barefoot College, about its history: