Backgrounder: the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women

November 13, 2002

INDORE, India — The Barli Development Institute for Rural Women focuses on giving poor young women literacy training, practical knowledge of health, nutrition and sanitation, skills for income-generation, and an awareness of village-level environmental conservation. Empowered by their training as agents for social change, graduates have had a measurable impact on the well-being of their families and home villages.

Originally established as the Baha'i Vocational Institute for Rural Women, the Institute became an independent entity with its own board of directors in September 2001, taking the name Barli Development Institute for Rural Women. The Institute has trained more than 1,300 young women and girls since 1985.

Located in the city of Indore in Madhya Pradesh, the Institute offers all of its training programs free of charge to women, drawing its trainees mainly from tribal areas throughout a region that is marked by chronic poverty and malnutrition, due in part to low crop yields, frequent droughts, a shortage of drinking water, and poor soil.

Its programs seek to overcome obstacles that have traditionally hindered the development of women, which in turn have hindered the development of all. To this end, it offers a spiritually oriented curriculum that empowers women with an opportunity to reflect on the nature of their relationships with others and with their social institutions. The students examine age-old caste, tribal, and class prejudices, in the light of Baha'i principles such as the oneness of humanity, equality of women and men, respect for diversity, and service to the community. At the same time, they are encouraged to identify positive elements in their culture that need to be preserved and strengthened.

The Institute works on these goals through a holistic approach to education, giving each trainee leadership training courses in literacy, tailoring, agriculture, artisan crafts-work, human rights, environmental awareness, self-esteem and personality development, social commitment, nutrition and health, and income-generating skills. Art, music, and dance are also incorporated into the curriculum.

The objective is that, once empowered with such training, the women can return to their home villages and become "pillars" of their families and communities -- agents for changing the social and physical environments. Indeed, "barli" is the local word for the central pillar of the house, and like the "barli," which supports the physical structure, the woman supports the structure of the family and the community.

Woven throughout the Institute's curriculum is a strong environmental component. Trainees learn that caring for the environment is a spiritual responsibility, as well as an important service to the community. Students are taught about planting and maintaining trees, finding local sources for seeds, and the use of environmental and energy conservation techniques such as composting, vermiculture, the use of biodegradable products, and proper waste management. One of the institute's earliest health education campaigns freed that area of guinea worm by teaching the importance of clean water.

4 images
Since 1998, the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women in Indore, India, has used a large parabolic solar cooker for all its cooking, managing to do 100 percent of its cooking with solar power for some 250 days a year.| The Institute focuses on giving poor young women literacy training, practical knowledge of health, nutrition and sanitation, skills for income-generation, and an awareness of village-level environmental conservation.

More specifically, the trainees learn conservation strategies by doing. At the Institute itself, rainwater is harvested and, in an innovative arrangement, used to re-charge the underground aquifer. Wash-water is reused for irrigation. Gardens, tended by the trainees, provide most of the Institute's food. Trainees prepare meals using state-of-the-art solar cookers; some become "experts" able to support the use of solar cookers in their villages.

Indeed, for the last 17 years, the Institute has been a leader in researching, experimenting with, and using solar cooking technologies. In the mid-1980s, it began using solar box cookers for some of its cooking and promoting their use in the villages.

In May 1998, a 7.5 square-meter parabolic solar cooker was installed the Institute; another was installed in 2000. Now, for approximately 250 days in a year, 100 percent of all cooking uses solar energy. Further, trainees are shown the savings to the environment -- and their time -- that are possible through the use of solar devices, and they are encouraged to propagate the use of solar box cookers, highly efficient parabolic concentrating cookers, and other energy saving devices in their villages.

The Institute is currently involved in manufacturing SK14 cookers. So far, nine of these concentrating parabolic solar cookers, which are capable of cooking for 10-12 people at once, have been set up in outlying villages by the Institute in a pilot program. The Institute plans to distribute 40 more such cookers, funded mainly by primary school children in Austria, in the coming months.

Graduates have had a measurable impact on their communities. Although more than half of the trainees are illiterate when they arrive, 99% leave fully able to read and write Hindi. Studies show that 96% of them use their income generation and related skills upon their return home and that 46% have established small businesses of sewing clothes and started generating income while 7- 9% are employed in various jobs. Some 97% of graduates are using safe drinking water practices; some 70% now include leafy vegetables in their diet; and 41% are growing and selling vegetables. In addition, women in five villages have planted some 2,500 trees

Other studies have shown that the women have indeed helped to create a new atmosphere of mutual respect and unity in their communities, helping to displace caste prejudices in tribal communities once notorious for their high crime rate and alcohol abuse. The Institute collaborates actively with government officials and non-government organizations -- exchanging information, methodologies, and research information.

The Institute's training programs typically run either six months or one year, although short-term workshops and training sessions are occasionally offered on select topics. Graduates receive a certificate through the National Open Schools program. The Institute obtains funding from a range of sources, including the Baha'i community of India, the Swedish International Development Agency, and the Two Wings Foundation.

The Institute has received numerous awards and citations for its work on the environment and development. In 1992, it was made a member of the United Nations Environmental Programme's Global 500 Roll of Honor for outstanding Environmental Achievement. In 1994, the Institute was listed in UNESCO's INNOV database as one of 81 successful basic education projects in developing countries.

On 13 November 2002, the Institute was presented to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as a "sacred gift" from the Baha'i International Community, as part of an Alliance on Religion and Conservation celebration of her Golden Jubilee. For more information, see the Baha'i World News Service story at