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.
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.
The rallying cry roused the young women assembled for Educate Girls’ monthly Team Balika meeting in the desert town of Bar, Rajasthan. This being the second week of her six-week placement at Educate Girls’ regional office to conduct a research study into girls’ education and empowerment, Elizabeth Shaw was happy to be invited to observe the monthly gathering.
“We are the change-makers” Team Balika work to build local support for girls’ education and to improve learning outcomes by implementing creative learning methods in schools. These young volunteers are critical to Educate Girls’ community mobilization model, which is reforming government schools and increasing school participation among female students across rural Rajasthan.
The goal of the monthly meeting was to motivate the Team Balika members, develop their leadership and teaching skills, share success stories, and discuss solutions to challenges they were facing in schools. While some of the newer members were shy, the more experienced of the team spoke confidently about the ups and downs of their work.
Elizabeth, who is from Australia, did not need to understand Hindi to hear the commitment and pride in the voices of inspired girls, many of who had faced significant challenges in completing their own education. Impressed and inspired by one such girl, Elizabeth peeped into the life of Sukhi Singh.
Sukhi is a 18 year old, who lost her mother when she was just two years old. As a child she had to work to help her father who was left to care for his three young daughters alone. Despite her hardship, Sukhi was lucky that her father was a firm believer in the importance of girls’ education and encouraged her to attend school, which she did in the face of demanding family responsibilities.
Now Sukhi is one of Educate Girls’ ‘change-makers’, and is working to inspire girls and their families to share her and her father’s commitment to send girls to school. She has quickly won the respect of her village and has successfully convinced five families to enroll their out-of-school daughters in her first few days working as a Team Balika volunteer. Although young, Sukhi is clearly a natural leader with a calm and engaging presence that commands the attention of others when she speaks.
And she is not the only one. These girls, some of whom are the first female students in their village to ever complete the 8th standard, are having a profound effect on the lives of girls not much younger than themselves. Sukhi and the other Team Balika members are fully utilizing this chance to discover and develop their natural talents. With Educate Girls’ support they are utilizing these skills to play a pivotal role in the transformation of their communities.