On the way to Jalore - one of Rajasthan's most gender biased districts.
On the way to Jalore – one of Rajasthan’s most gender biased districts.

The prospect of oppressive heat was daunting. The lengthy journey into the interiors of Rajasthan was an overwhelming prospect. Extreme dry heat, temperatures in excess of 45 degrees Celsius and difficult terrain awaited us.

I am not a social scientist. I am not an educationist. I am not an educator. I am not directly connected to the social sector. I am an adequate manager. I am a self-appointed social entrepreneur. Above all I am a filmmaker. I am a filmmaker with a self-imposed responsibility. A responsibility to mirror society. A responsibility to portray life and its contradictions through films. A responsibility to engage meaningfully with audiences.

Honestly, I am not even a filmmaker with these self-imposed responsibilities. I am a citizen of a democracy that promises among other things the right to education for every citizen. A right that is essential. A right that must be exercised. But a right that is still not understood. A right that is still far from being a reality. A right that is still just a powerful piece of legislation.

Safeena and her ever-smiling 'Team Balika' members.
Safeena and her ever-smiling ‘Team Balika’ members.

The year was 2007. I was invited to join the board of Educate Girls, a non-profit founded by my wife Safeena Husain. Safeena is a remarkable woman. She is an alumnus of the London School of Economics with the potential to draw big bucks in any corporate job or to create huge profits out of any small enterprise. Early in her life she made a choice to use her remarkable skills to make the world a better place. For her this is no bombastic dream or idealistic drivel. She perseveres tirelessly. She works endlessly. She is driven by change. Most importantly she is strategic in her approach to the world’s myriad problems and their solutions. Her vision is humanitarian while her approach is entrepreneurial. Let me stop here for a moment, I promised myself that this piece would not be a glowing tribute to my lovely partner. This piece is actually about my experience with her work. This piece is my experience as a witness to strategic social change. This piece is an account of my learning from the work done by her amazing organization (mine too) and its absolutely amazing cadre.

Girls’ education is one of the most crucial elements in positively transforming a developing country like India. When girls are educated, they become empowered. When girls are educated, society becomes more progressive. When girls are educated infant mortality, child marriage, repression, oppression and gender bias are eliminated. When girls are educated, they are exposed to opportunity – an opportunity to rise above poverty, an opportunity to serve their families better, an opportunity to raise their voice, an opportunity to exercise their equality. When girls are educated, we are more likely to live in a better world. A world free from ignorance. A world free from discrimination. A world free from exploitation.

While the benefits of girls’ education are well understood and articulated, its access to some of the most populous parts of India is a huge challenge. The task is humongous and only massive scale achieved strategically in a short while can help tackle this. The Indian government is well intentioned in its commitment to the task. Exhaustive policies are in place. Major budget allocations are available. Extensive legislation is in existence. However, these intentions like many other governmental initiatives don’t necessarily translate into grassroots action. A vast bureaucracy, a divided political system, massive infrastructural gaps, complex societal structures, repressive familial traditions, an almost uncontrollable population and geographical vastness are only some of the limiting factors.

The Educate Girls solution is elegant, potent, scalable and practical. According to EG the key to solving global issues is the complete involvement of local communities. Local communities must own their problems. Local communities must solve their problems. Local communities are the key to transformation. Local communities are the change. EG works within existing government structures using the community as both the catalyst and the vehicle for societal, attitudinal and systemic change. This is EG’s strategy for change. This is EG’s theory of transformation.

From 500 government schools in 2007 to nearly 5,700 schools in 2013 EG is poised to reach over 13,000 schools in 2014. All these schools are owned by the government and funded by them. Based on EG’s theory of change these schools are jointly owned by the communities they are intended for. Their accessibility to over a million girls in the highly gender-biased state of Rajasthan is as much the responsibility of local communities as it is of the government. Their effectiveness is in the hands of local communities.

EG uses extensive data collection, surveys and analysis to approach this task in a systematic, structured and strategic manner. EG creates local community-driven structures that mirror existing government structures (such as school management committees) to ensure girls enrollment, retention and to run the schools effectively. It partners with other NGOs to ensure effective learning outcomes are achieved by schools for their students (EG’s focus is on girls). EG recruits, trains and manages a dedicated cadre of volunteers called ‘Team Balika’ to effectively advocate its strategic goals to the remotest areas under its program coverage.

The Educate Girls’ cadre is committed to positive social change through girls’ education.

On my visit to Rajasthan I was able to experience both the enormity of the task at hand and the selfless commitment that has made EG such an important vehicle for girls education in India. The entire EG cadre including its managers, officers and volunteers were unfazed by the weather. They were unhindered by limited infrastructure. Their broad smiles gave me hope. Their enthusiasm gave me courage. Their tenacity gave me strength. Their belief gave me optimism. They were united in their resolve to ensure a better future for their girls. They were driven by their mission to eradicate the gender bias – one girl at a time. Because of EG’s strategic approach their ultimate goal did not seem like an idealistic pipe dream. I left Rajasthan knowing fully well that our country with its empowered communities could look at the future with renewed hope.

I left Rajasthan with an achievable dream. I left Rajasthan with pride. I was after all a part of this incredible revolution. I am now a Team Balika – committed to EG’s vision, mission and strategy with a willingness to devote my limited capability to making the world a better place.

About the Author: Hansal Mehta is an award winning film maker and board member of Educate Girls. After a brief stint as a computer engineer, he followed his passion for telling stories using cinema. He has been a part of the prolific Mumbai Film Industry for the past 17 years. Besides creating one of India’s biggest food brands through his television show ‘Khana Khazana’, Hansal has directed acclaimed feature films including Jayate, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, Chhal, Dus Kahanaiyaan and Shahid. A multi-faceted individual, Hansal is also the CEO of The India Study Abroad Center (ISAC), a vibrant social enterprise that connects interns from around the world to India’s grassroots.

Twitter: #educategirls @mehtahansal #teambalika #impact