Innovative school empowers Indian women

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According to Akshay Sharma, an assistant professor for Industrial Design at Virginia Tech, design is about the process of creatively solving problems. With the help of the students and faculty at the School for Architecture and Design at Virginia Tech, he has helped guide a series of projects that he hopes will improve the quality of life for the poor in India, as well as help empower them to take their lives into their own hands. Many of Sharma’s projects focus on supporting women. These projects and their effects were the focus of Sharma’s Designing Empowerment: Design Thinking for Social Impact talk on April 15, part of a series of talks about design and entrepreneurship.

During his talk, Sharma mentioned that poverty is a major detriment to many Indians. The majority of the people live on less than $2. Sharma, who grew up in India, says that this is a major limiting factor in the quality of life of many Indians. However, his projects aim to raise the subpar standard of living, and help reduce poverty in India.

One ongoing project that Sharma and his students have taken part in is known as Barefoot College. When the college itself was founded in 1975, locals were very involved in the process of constructing and designing the college, and this tradition has continued. The locals are still in charge of operating the institution.

For example, the college’s dental clinic is run by a 50-year-old woman with no formal training or dental expertise. In fact, the woman is actually completely illiterate. Despite these limitations, she is able to successfully operate the college’s clinic.

Another segment of the college is known as the Barefoot Engineers. This is a group led by five women, also illiterate, that have built very delicate, precise solar reflectors. These solar reflectors can boil water, cook rice and perform a myriad of other useful day-to-day functions. Engineers have also built voltage control models and they are now in the process of teaching other women from around the world how to build these devices. However, to overcome the language barrier, a color-coded system was designed to teach the construction of these devices.

Microfinance has been another of Sharma’s projects. He has helped raise awareness about managing finance among women in the rural villages he and his students have visited. This has led to the development of finance meetings, which are held to manage the village women’s finances better.

According to Sharma, the women host the meetings themselves in order to avoid the extremely high interest rates that local moneylenders demand. Sharma gave an example of an exchange with a local lender.

“Let’s say I go to a local money lender,” he said. “The money lender will say that he will lend me the money, but at a rate of 1 Indian rupee per 100 rupees lent per 1 week. This is a total interest rate of 52 percent, and it is being compounded.”

Instead of paying this large rate, the women pool up enough money to go to a bank and request a loan, which saves them money. This allows them to make sound investments rather than becoming mired in debt.

The last project Sharma mentioned was a vaccination registration system.  Sharma said that cell phones are vital in India, and that nearly everyone has them nowadays in order to more quickly find job opportunities by contacting friends and relatives. Another use for these cell phones is to help register children on an online database that records their vaccinations. Traveling care workers can use this in turn to verify that children have updated vaccines. Vaccinations are a major health concern as nearly 3 million children die from preventable diseases due to a lack of vaccinations.

In all, these projects and others that Sharma employs a method of immersive research. He first spent time getting to understand the people of India before attempting to help solve their problems. Because Sharma was raised in India, this was easy for him; however, he believes that the same approach can be used in places much closer to home, such as poorer areas of St. Louis.

Sharma believes that the most important thing is to understand the true problems facing people, and to understand their cultural and social values. Once this is done, he believes that the problems can be solved with designs that are easily integrated into the lives of the people in question.