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Rajasthan's rural revolution

Rajasthan, one of the poorest and least developed states in India, has the second lowest literacy rate for women in the country, at 44%, and a deeply entrenched caste system. But with the help of non-governmental organisations, women are leading a rural revolution challenging both the prejudices of the past and the country's rush to modernise.

One of these NGOs, the Barefoot College, is a grass roots movement that spreads knowledge rather than money by training poor, mostly illiterate, village women in non-traditional skills such as solar engineering, lessening the need for wood or other increasingly scarce fuels used for cooking. Villagers are also being encouraged to revive traditional techniques of rainwater harvesting rather than continuing to pump up the depleted underground water. There is also a social revolution in progress. By taking control of their villages' energy and water supplies, women have challenged traditional gender and caste hierarchies. Such jobs were always off-limits to lower castes and
usually done by men with outside education, but the Barefoot College promotes the idea that learning comes with practical action on the ground, and that not being able to read or write is no bar to advancement. Nevertheless schooling - or more particularly night-schooling - is another central focus of its work with young girls. Traditionally rural families opposed girl's education, since daughters always move away to their husband's family after marriage. But, lit by solar lanterns, night schools are being set up in rural Rajasthan - giving many girls the chance to study for the first time (after dark when their day's work has been done).Out of the night schools has come another unique program. Every three years, night school pupils across Rajasthan elect representatives to serve on a
'Children's Parliament'. They choose a Prime Minister, and a complete cabinet, all aged between 8 and 14. The parliament meets monthly, and each child MP is expected to report on the conditions of at least two villages she (or he) is responsible for. If the parliament decides a village needs a water tank or solar electricity, they will campaign to bring this about. 'The children have to stand up on stage and speak publicly when they are fighting elections', says one night-school teacher. 'They learn not to be shy and how to be good politicians in the future.'

Across Rajasthan, and other parts of rural India, economic and environmental pressures are forcing more and more people to abandon their traditional way of life. Most will end up in the slums expanding on the fringes of big cities, looking for work as low-paid day labourers. But Rajasthani women, formerly one of the least empowered segments of Indian society, are now at the forefront of a fight for a sustainable future in the countryside. As urbanization speeds up in the 21st century, grass roots movement like Barefoot College will become increasingly important as India, and other rapidly developing countries face the environmental and social limits of unsustainable growth.

A complete text including interviews with seven Rajasthani women, ages 13 to
61, is available to accompany the photos.
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