No woman left in the woods

In rural India, gathering firewood and cooking with it has always been a woman’s burden. Dr Janak Palta McGilligian has helped take this load off with one simple solution, and a lot of perseverance.

She wakes up before the crack of dawn, while her children are still fast asleep. She has her work cut out for her — a long trek into the forest to gather firewood, and another trudge back. Once she returns, she lights her stove using the firewood she has so painstakingly collected, and starts cooking for her family. The tiny kitchen fills up with smoke, which she breathes in, because what other choice does she have?

‘She’ represents the women of a country where up to 81 percent of rural communities rely on polluting fuels and cook their daily meals. These open fires produce highly polluting smoke, which is harmful to the environment but, more importantly, to the women who are forced to inhale it while cooking over it.

Dr Janak Palta McGilligan recognized the burden of these women and decided to do something about it. Her inspiring story is featured in Season 4 of 101 India x MG Changemakers, an initiative that brings stories of inspiring women who are torchbearers of change in their communities. The latest season focuses on stories advocating for the sustainable development of communities, which Dr Janak has been doing for years with an unending level of commitment and just one piece of equipment — a solar cooker.

Rays of hope

A study has found that on average, women spend approximately 374 hours every year collecting firewood in India. Coupled with household chores and often the additional trips to fetch water, this leaves the women in rural regions with very little time to engage in other productive or leisure activities.

“Years ago, I started my work in Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua District, where villages didn’t have electricity, and where even the girls weren’t going to school because they had to assist their mothers in collecting firewood,” says Dr Janak.

But that wasn’t all. The women were risking their health and well-being in the process of collecting and cooking with firewood. With the chopping of firewood depleting forest edges, with time, women have to walk longer and longer distances into the forests. The trips can leave women exhausted, and also lead to issues like back pain and sciatica, sometimes worse. Moreover, they face the risk of being attacked — by not just wild animals, but also men — in the forest. And then there are the respiratory, cardiovascular and ophthalmic illnesses caused by inhaling the fumes caused by wood burning.

But Dr Janak knew that there was a solution to this. Together with her husband, the late Jimmy McGilligan, Dr Janak went around training rural and tribal women to be community workers and trainers for solar cooking, and also supervised the installation of hundreds of solar cookers in central India. Through their initiatives — the Jimmy McGilligan Centre for Sustainable Development and the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women — through which they’ve shown villages that solar cookers are a boon, and not something to be intimidated by.

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Rising like the sun

“Cooking is no longer just a woman’s burden. Now, even the men use the solar cooker to make tea or snacks for people who come visiting. It came as a pleasant shock to the women, that a solar cooker could be so liberating. This simple solar cooker turned out to be gender-friendly,” says Dr Janak.

There are several other ways in which switching to solar-powered cooking has benefited women and entire communities. For one, women and girls are relieved of the arduous task of collecting and cooking with firewood, which will prevent them from suffering from preventable illnesses.

“The girls can now go to school. And the women have time to go out and actually plant trees, something they have wanted to do but never found the time,” says Dr Janak.

She adds, “It has liberated the women emotionally, physically, mentally, and economically too. One of the women took a solar cooker and started her own tea stall, which she now earns a good income from.”

In 2015, Dr Janak was awarded a Padma Shri by the Government of India for her service. “I feel like I’ve achieved something in life. Six thousand girls and women from 500 villages — I have helped them become self-confident.”

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Written By: Shraddha Uchil