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The Women of Bunker

· The University opened in India of the poor and for the poor ·

Tilonia, a sleepy and forgotten little village in the north west of India, was the site chosen in the early seventies by Bunker Roy, a young graduate from Delhi, inspired by the desire to work with the poorest of the poor, those who cannot always eat twice a day.

Millions of farmers in rural India live in a state of fear and insecurity, suffering daily injustices and living well below the official poverty line, yet they are perfectly capable of thinking collectively about their lives in a more practical and relevant way than any expert from the city. The government does not seem to realize that the farmers have centuries of tradition and that, the billions spent on support and years of consultancy by experts have failed to alleviate poverty even minimally. Billions of dollars have been spent over the last 50 years by governments, international agencies and donors in order to try to resolve the problem of unemployment with no results.

The first objective was to restore confidence to the inhabitants of the countryside, encouraging them to discover their valuable resources, helping them to rely on their deep-rooted experience in order to find ways to remain in their villages instead of migrating to the large cities. In the forty years of its existence, the Barefoot College, the only university in the world founded by the poor and for the poor, has trained hundreds of thousands of men and women that no one would have employed. The criteria for selection are simple: they have to be poor and illiterate or semi-literate. The women have been from the beginning the key element of the community.

Aruna Roy, Bunker’s wife, who was later to become a well-known political activist in India, was the first to encourage village women to meet together. In fear of being discovered by their husbands and children, they were said to have gone to lavatories in the open countryside in order to get away from their homes. And it was in those secret meetings that they heard for the first time the word “rights”: the right to go to school, to get a good job, to earn, to have water and electricity in their homes. However no one would ever have imagined how much this would have radically changed their lives. Each meeting gave them more strength; it allowed them to permit their personalities to emerge: illiterate peasants led the struggle for the right to a salary, the right to information and the right to combat corruption. The first common battle was against a landowner who had diverted the irrigation channel of a pond, which everyone had used to irrigate. Five thousand women went to Jaipur and took part in a sit-in protest for a day and a night in front of the office of the district official. Naurti began the first strike by women demanding the right to work for a minimum wage during the famine. In his village Harmara, since being elected as the organ of the local administration and to the campus of the Barefoot College, is in charge of the Internet access point and teaches the use of computers to young people. He learned to navigate a keyboard even before knowing how to read and write.

By Maria Pace Ottieri




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