Illuminating Change: Rural Women in Guatemala Bring Solar Energy to Transform Communities

Since she was a little girl, Julieta, an indigenous Quiché woman, always believed her destiny was to stay at home and take care of her family. Living in a small rural community in Guatemala, where poverty and limited opportunities dominated life, she was deprived of formal education and never learned to read or write. The perpetual cycle of sunshine and shadows symbolized the unattainable dream of having electricity in her town.

Guatemala has of the largest indigenous populations on the continent, representing nearly half of its people. Despite this cultural richness, the country ranks as the second most gender-unequal nation in Latin America. The impact of inequality is particularly pronounced in rural areas, where women face marginalization and limited access to education, healthcare, and development opportunities. electricity is a luxury, not an essential service. Approximately,  6 out of 10 households in the country are energy poor, living deprived of access to reliable electricity supplies, especially in remote regions. 

Energy poverty is an issue for marginalized communities worldwide. In an effort to address this issue, Barefoot College, an organization dedicated to providing alternative education to rural women, was founded in India and created the Solar Mamas program, an initiative, that teaches women how to install and manage solar panels in their communities. Over 3,500 women have benefited from the program so far. 

In Latin America, Guatemalan women became the first to benefit from this program. One of them was Julieta, whose destiny changed at the age of 64 when she was able to attend school for the first time. With the curiosity of a girl and the courage of a woman willing to defy societal expectations, Julieta, alongside nine other women, attended a 5-month engineering skills training. The training emphasized graphics and colors, with color-coded instructions and repetition practice to ensure effective learning and understanding, especially for illiterate women. 

Solar electrification not only reduces CO2 emissions but also mitigates the negative impacts of deforestation and air pollution caused by burning firewood and kerosene. The Guatemalan Solar Mamas learned to fabricate circuits, assemble complete systems and lanterns, install them, and acquire the knowledge to maintain them for years to come.

This newfound knowledge has enabled Julieta to install solar panels and brings light to her community, impacting not just her family of 7 children and 30 grandchildren, but the entire village, illuminating the way for current and future generations to come. Reflecting on the transformative journey, Julieta wishes she had been exposed to this knowledge sooner, as it would have enriched her life, opening doors to countless opportunities.

"That's why I came to learn," she says with unwavering enthusiasm, "because I am determined to fight, learn, and create a better life for my family." Her eyes now sparkle with determination as she seizes the opportunity to make a difference in a community and country that lacks essential government support.

Working closely with women in rural areas, activist Sofia Perez sheds light on the harsh reality of inequality that in Guatemala has been perpetuated. "The lack of essential services in these marginalized communities is a stark testimony to the inequality we live in, and the ultimate victims are women and children," she says. 

Guatemala's history also reflects its poverty through the migration of its people to the United States. The economic hardships and lack of opportunities within Guatemala have driven individuals to seek better prospects abroad, often at great personal risk. This migration not only results in loss of life but also places additional financial strain on families left behind. Lawrence Miagligo, program director of Barefoot College Guatemala, says that the organization chose to begin helping women in Guatemala due to this country’s history of conflict-induced forced displacement, which has affected thousands of indigenous people still grappling with its aftermath. 

“Educating women is crucial in Guatemala's context, as many men migrate to the USA, and women as the heads of households." He emphasizes the importance of empowering women because they "prioritize the common good and seek to improve community life." So far, the installation of 150 panels has benefited 750 people in these rural areas.

Women who have participated in the 5-month program to bring light to their communities are illiterate and have limited formal education and are between 35 and 55 years old. What unites them is their unwavering determination to change lives in their communities, especially for the generations to come.

"My greatest motivation was thinking about the children in my community," says Julieta. Due to lack of access and precariousness, children in rural areas don't attend school, or when they do, they often drop out because they lack access to light or the internet. The alarming school dropout rates in the country, reaching 51% among teenagers and young people, according to UNICEF, fuel our concerns. Almost all of us students are mothers and grandmothers, and we want to provide our descendants with a different future, filled with greater opportunities than what we had.

With the work of women like Julieta, who are able to provide electricity through solar panels, this is changing. In addition to providing light, the work of these women has brought multiple other benefits, such as enabling children to access education consistently and preventing them from dropping out of school due to a lack of light or internet access. Community safety has also improved, as the light has reduced the risk of accidents and allowed for increased vigilance during the night.

In addition to the panels, the women have learned to make portable lamps that can also recharge cell phones and have a lifespan of two decades. Juana, who started as a learner and now has a leading role in the program says, "When you have solar light all the time, you have more time to do more things. Access to energy is access to freedom." 

These indigenous women are making a significant and lasting change in their communities. They have found a new source of power, not only in generating electricity but also in their ability to transform lives and build a more sustainable and equitable future.