Meena Bhati (pictured above with a girl from the village) was born into a Rajput family living in the Chanud Village of Pali district in Rajasthan, India. The Rajput community does not believe in educating a girl child; many families there do not even wish to bring a girl into this world because she is seen as a liability. She grew up in a society where women were treated with inequality in all walks of life. Meena was lucky that her parents gave her the opportunity to study, but only until class 10. She pleaded with her parents to allow her to continue her education after class 10 but she was told to pay attention to household chores and prepare for marriage instead. Soon after she was married, much against her wish.
Little did Meena know, she had another chance waiting for her. Her husband was a teacher, and understood the importance of education. Instead of risking her life with an adolescent pregnancy or being forced to work at home, Meena was re-enrolled in school. Though their parents disapproved, Meena’s husband stood by her side and supported her. She now holds a Bachelor’s degree in Education and is taking post-graduate courses in Hindi and Rural Development.
Meena joined Educate Girls 6 years ago, and is our longest-serving employee. She has risen through the ranks and is now a Field Communications Manager. Many of our staff and volunteers, as well as people in the community, look up to her. Though inspiring, Meena’s story is not the norm.
There are 3.7 million out-of-school girls in India. Over 50% of girlsin India between the ages of 10 and 13 drop out of school. The state of Rajasthan has 9 of India’s 26 worst gender gap districts in education, where 68% of girlsare married below the legal age and 15%are married below the age of 10. Of girls who are enrolled in school in Rajasthan, only 1 in 100will reach class 12, and 40% of girlsleave class before class 5. Many girls are not as fortunate as Meena, but they still deserve a chance.
Educate Girls finds out-of-school girls, enrolls them, and gives them an opportunity to realize their potential. Our holistic approach to education mobilizes communities to take a stand against gender disparity. It involves parents, schools, community leaders, local government, and our own village-based volunteers (Team Balika) to ensure increased enrollment and retention of girls in schools, and improved learning outcomes for all students. We believe that by empowering village communities to prioritize education, more girls can be educated at a larger scale. If more girls are educated, then their health, income levels and overall livelihoods improve, having residual effects on the surrounding community and society as a whole. Meena’s story is an example of what can be achieved when a girl is given a chance to be educated.
Our goal is to improve access and quality of education for around 4 million children living in underserved communities in India by 2018.
Seema is a 16 year old girl from Pali, Rajasthan. She lost her father at the age of 11, a tragedy that people in her village blamed her for, saying she was cursed. Seema was miserable. To add to her despair, she was married off to an abusive alcoholic who was twice her age. Eventually, he threw her out onto the street. Seema’s situation, though heart-breaking, is not unique.
68% of girls in Rajasthan are married before the legal age of 18. These girls often drop out of school and begin to work in homes where they are susceptible to abuse, adolescent pregnancy and often have no decision making power. 9 out of 26 ‘gender gap’ districts in India are in Rajasthan, where 40% of girls drop out of school before they reach 5th grade.
Seema was alone, living on the street when our Team Balika member, Sharda, found her. Our Team Balika are the champions of our cause with over 1500 volunteers working towards rejuvenating government schools and improving learning outcomes. Sharda counseled Seema to help her learn to face her struggles with confidence. With Sharda’s help, Seema gained the courage to re-enroll in school, where, after studying for two years, she passed her 10th grade exams with flying colors.
Today, Seema herself is a proud member of Team Balika. She works with Sharda to enroll out-of-school girls, support school teachers, and conduct life skills education sessions. Seema’s ability to overcome her situation is an inspiration.
Our Team Balika members are crucial elements of the Educate Girls model. They go door to door to convince families to prioritize girls’ education. They mobilize communities to form School Management Committees, giving community members a platform to assess schools and influence the local education system. Furthermore, Team Balika helps to increase learning outcomes by working directly with teachers and headmasters to introduce creative learning techniques in classrooms. Their efforts on the ground are not only essential to our success as an organization, but create lasting impact on the lives of people in the communities they serve.
Through the efforts of Team Balika, Educate Girls has enrolled over 59,000 girls. Our goal is to improve access and quality of education for around 4 million children living in underserved communities in India by 2018.
Anjali is a 9 year old from Rajasthan, India. She loves drawing, watching movies and painting her hands with beautiful henna designs. She goes to school every day and her parents support her desire for education. Anjali is lucky because not every girl in her village has the opportunity to study.
Her cousin, Rani, who is just one year older, got married last summer. In a couple of years, Rani will leave her parents’ home to move with her husband’s family. In Anjali’s school, there is a girls’ parliament called the Bal Sabha (Girls Council). During Bal Sabha sessions, young girls are taught life skills. They have the opportunity to speak up about their concerns, and by doing so, they gain confidence. Anjali really likes being part of the Bal Sabha.
She particularly enjoys the dance and theatre performances they put together. Two months ago, the Bal Sabha girls presented a short play in front of their classmates. Anjali was playing a Team Balika Member visiting a house where a young girl was about to get married. Anjali’s character had to convince the parents to stop the wedding from happening and to send their daughter back to school instead.
The issue of child marriage is quite problematic in the region, and Anjali had to use many arguments to explain why girls should get educated instead of being married off so early. The story had a great impact on the audience and many students had something to recount at the end of the performance.
Since Educate Girls started its program six years ago, almost 11,000 girls have been trained as Bal Sabha leaders in the districts where Educate Girls works. These young girls grow up educated and confident, with knowledge and skills that will help them throughout their lives.
Since the play was performed, Anjali talked to one of Educate Girls’ volunteers. She mentioned her cousin’s marriage and the fact that Rani didn’t go to school any more. Our volunteer has been to Rani’s house several times to talk to her parents. After much persuasion, they have finally agreed to send their daughter back to school until the time comes where she will leave their home. Now Rani and Anjali walk to school together, play and do homework in the evening.
I am Navli Kumari from Abu Road Block in Sirohi district, Rajasthan. I was fortunate to have been able to live with my father in Abu Road, a relatively developed area that facilitated my studies. Sadly, after my father passed away, I had to move back to my native village which is an Adivasi area where girls do not have any access to education. In fact, there wasn’t a single school there. I was the only girl in the village who had studied till the 12th grade. It was very disheartening for me to see that most girls were deprived of even primary education. Seeing them, I often wondered how I could use my education for the betterment of my community but saw no existing avenue. I desperately wanted to see a school building in my village.
One day, an Educate Girls Field Coordinator came looking for me. He mentioned that he was in search of an educated person in my village who could volunteer to bring back girls to school and handhold them through their learning process. He told me that I would fit the role perfectly and then gave me deeper insight into the organization and its interventions – this was my first formal introduction to Educate Girls.
I was highly motivated by Educate Girls’ methodology, but I realized that this was a challenging proposition. Educate Girls’ model is based on partnership with the government and revolves around a core element – Team Balika or community youth leaders who volunteer with the organization. I chose to become a Team Balika because I genuinely wanted to make a difference in my village. When I first went door-to-door trying to convince parents to send their daughters to school, many doors were slammed in my face and many abuses were hurled at me. But I knew I had to be patient and persistent. Gradually parents allowed their daughters to step out in uniform.
I have been a Team Balika for 4 years now and take pride in saying that with help from Educate Girls I have enrolled 46 girls in school and stopped 2 child marriages. After many years of unsuccessful attempts, a school has finally been set-up in my village. The support and creative training offered by Educate Girls has achieved dual purpose in my life. Not only has there been an increase in the confidence & learning levels of the girls who are being enrolled, I too have been empowered. I’ve been trained in essential skills and taught a solution-finding and constructive approach to dealing with every situation. From a place where achieving my dreams seemed impossible, to where I am today – contesting as a candidate in the local elections and being viewed as a leader with potential –Educate Girls has been the wind in my sails.
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.
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.
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.
After visiting Educate Girls programs for a week, grade 12 students from Mumbai Tridha school share their experience with us:
“I, along with other members of my class went to Rajasthan to work with ‘Educate Girls’, an NGO that works for education of the girl child. It was a 7 day long stay where in we visited various schools and spoke with various members of the NGO. We also spoke with the students, teachers and parents in order to see different perspectives and understand more about their life, their problems and their situations.
At first we spoke with Meena ji and visited a few different schools where we spoke to the students about their lives, their dreams and ambitions, the difficulties they face and the things that have changed thanks to the help of ‘Team Balika’. We also spoke with the members of ‘Team Balika’ which proved to be very inspiring. Their dedication, will powers and strength is remarkable. Seeing them work so hard and fight for what they believe in, even though they come from a background that does not allow them to do so, really touched my heart.” Rewa
“On the first day itself we went to a school and we met a few students. When we spoke to them I personally felt the trouble that the girls had to go through. Living all my life in Mumbai and just hearing about the problems that the girls face, I could never connect. But when I sat and heard it personally, I understood the problem more, in depth. The work put in by the ‘Team Balika’ was clearly visible, as they helped motivate the girls and build their confidence.” Haardik
“Our trip to Rajasthan was an eye opener. Even though I was aware of the issue regarding the girl child’s struggle for the basic right to education, I wasn’t aware of the extent at which it existed. For the simple reason that I live in a city like Mumbai where everyone lives in their own comfort zone and where one might tend to think that India as a whole is progressing very fast considering all the foreign relations, growing number of NGOS and government policies regarding the welfare policies. (…)
We observed, while many volunteers stood up for the right of education for girls – for the good of society – the society was actually one of the greatest barriers. One thing about the trip made me realize that one cannot really feel for a certain issue until the time when one actually gets to experience/ witness for oneself.” Qurrat
“(The students we met) seemed strong and felt positively about moving on. They were even boldly incorporating changes that benefited their lifestyle into their homes when they went for holidays. They taught their mothers to eat in plates, to eat with spoons, they taught of hygiene matters and they taught them not to be afraid of men nor agree with all their demands nor to sacrifice their valuable life but to speak up and do something for themselves in which they found satisfaction. (…)
My experience got me to notice hidden reality. There are many out there who want change but are not willing to do so and want the change to happen by itself. An insecure society has for so long made entire generations of girls bear a harmful cost. Many women have sacrificed their lives and the meaningfulness of their lives to an outdated ideology.
It angered me to think how society perceives women. Are women made just to bear children and clean men’s finished plates? Women have understanding and of course they have the quality of nurturing and caring but more importantly, they have voices and intellect. (…)
So I had a question in my mind: is it wrong to be born a girl? Why is life a punishment for her? It’s fantastic to be a fighter, against society’s narrow-minded values and intolerant norms, but why must the Girl always fight?
We, the women of the privileged world, it is our responsibility to reach out to these girls and women, to hold their hands and walk with them and give them the support they need to achieve the realization of education, self-satisfaction and independence.” Suhasini
“The oppression of women may still very much be a problem in the next couple of decades but I personally feel that we are coming to a time where it may not be a problem anymore. Until then everyone in this country (not only NGOs like educate girls) needs to start caring about problems outside their own tiny lives.” Rayan
‘I for In-Laws’ signifies how child marriage makes a young girl lose her childhood and also her identity. It is worrisome that, if the present trends continue, 100 million girlsacross the world will be married over the next decade. That would mean 25,000 girlsbeing married every day for the next 10 years.
68% of girls in Rajasthan are married before the age of 18. They are torn away from their parents and compelled to obey their in-laws.
Our project ‘Child Brides: Send them to School Instead’ is our effort to send girls to school. We work in Pali and Jalore districts in Rajasthan where we stress on education and work towards the prevention of child marriage.