Women on Power

WHY POVERTY. Can you teach illiterate women from developing countries to build solar panels? That's exactly what a project in India aims to do. "Solar Mamas" tracks a Jordanian woman's struggle to educate herself and improve conditions in her native Bedouin village. The film is part of the international "Why Poverty?" project raising questions about a complex global issue.

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"Solar Mamas". Photo: Mona Eldaief

"Should I stay like this forever?" Rafea Anad, 32, aks her fellow female villagers. Cigarette in hand, she gestures at her husband who is lazing on a mattress. "Look at him, he just lies there all day."

"Women who live in villages like Rafea's usually invest their time and effort in their family and immediate surroundings. They don't migrate to the big cities, as the men tend to do."

It's a key scene in Mona Eldaeif and Jehane Noujaim's documentary "Solar Mamas", which tracks Rafea's struggle to be allowed to get an education.

Rafea wants to work. She wants to see the world and she wants to learn. Not least, she wants to be able to feed her four children and change life in her village of Manshait Al Gayath, Jordan, whose population of 300 are all unemployed or mired in deep poverty.

Unlike so many other women around the world, she gets the chance to fulfil her dream. She is one of 27 women chosen to participate in an education programme at the Barefoot College, India, which recruits illiterate women from Third World villages. Over a six-month course, they are taught how to build solar panels – a skill they can take home and use in their respective villages, which then become energy sustainable and self-reliant. But, in Jordan it's dishonourable for women to work and Rafea's husband is against it.

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"Solar Mamas". Foto: Mona Eldaief

Threatens to divorce

A grandmother from another village had originally been selected to go to India. Barefoot College likes to recruit grandmothers, because they don't have small children and – unlike the men, who are more flighty – they take their new skills back to the village and apply them there. But, at the last minute, the grandmother opted out and Rafea took her spot.

Six weeks after Rafea leaves, her husband calls her up, threatening to divorce her and take their four daughters away unless she comes home immediately. Distressed and miserable, Rafea returns to Jordan, horrified at the thought of losing her children. But her time in India has changed her – she has learned what she is capable of. She has gained confidence and courage.

"I want to see how people in other countries think and work," she says. "I want to think and work with them."

"Think in Jordan," her mother snaps. "It's better for a woman to be at home with her children." But for Rafea there is no way back. With the aid of the Jordanian government, which is eager to bring alternative energy sources to the country, she convinces her husband to let her go again. She passes her exam with flying colours, is interviewed for Jordanian TV and returns home full of initiative and confidence.

Education is empowering

"When they arrive at Barefoot College, the women have absolutely no confidence. They come in with bad posture, scared and intimidated. But at the end of the programme, their posture is erect and they look like they could conquer the whole world. They never thought that they could become engineers, that they were competent," co-director Mona Eldaief says.

"It boosts their inner strength. This is a universal issue for women anywhere. Having a career and a family, balancing the two. Witnessing Rafea's struggle, how much she is up against – if she can conquer all that, then my situation doesn't look so bad," Eldaief, who lives in New York, says.

Eldaif is convinced that women play an important role in fighting world poverty.

"As primary breadwinners who are responsible for their children's survival, women who live in villages like Rafea's usually invest their time and effort in their family and immediate surroundings. They don't migrate to the big cities in search of jobs, leaving their families, as the men tend to do."

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