girl icons

A spe­cial pro­gram in in­dia gives girls the chance to take con­trol of their lives.


Twenty-one-year-old Ra­jku­mari Sa­gar is kind of a big deal in her hometown – a vil­lage in In­dia’s north called Farid­pur. While fin­ish­ing high school and pur­su­ing a grad­u­ate de­gree, she man­aged to con­vince the par­ents of 16 girls in her com­mu­nity to let their daugh­ters stay in school. She even raised money to cover their fees. Now, neigh­bours who crit­i­cised her drive and out­spo­ken­ness come to her for help read­ing letters and fill­ing out forms. She al­ways helps, but only in ex­change for a prom­ise that they’ll al­low their daugh­ters to get an education.

These are rare feats for a girl from Farid­pur, where gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion is so en­trenched that a woman can’t even sit at the same phys­i­cal level as a man. When men sit in chairs, women must stay on the ground. “Ra­jku­mari is like a so­cial in­flu­encer there; peo­ple look up to her,” says Dhiren­dra Pratap Singh, CEO of the Mi­laan Foun­da­tion, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion based out­side New Delhi. Dhiren­dra knows Ra­jku­mari through her par­tic­i­pa­tion in Mi­laan’s Girl Icons pro­gram, which em­pow­ers teen girls to ad­vo­cate for gen­der equal­ity in their own com­mu­ni­ties. Those cho­sen for the pro­gram are ed­u­cated and trained to help other girls they know, cre­at­ing what Mi­laan hopes is a rip­ple ef­fect of change. “We're try­ing to cre­ate more Ra­jku­maris and other girls on the ground to fight one bat­tle at a time,” Dhiren­dra says. “The hope is that these bat­tles will come to­gether for a bet­ter world.” Dhiren­dra co-founded Mi­laan in 2007 with three of his mates from the Univer­sity of Delhi. Time spent vol­un­teer­ing in ru­ral vil­lages had opened their eyes to the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by young peo­ple like them­selves. “I was about 18, and that was the first time I re­ally started ac­knowl­edg­ing my own priv­i­lege,” Dhiren­dra says. “You see the chal­lenges around sim­ple things like food. There’s so much vi­o­lence. And the amount of work women do – you try to make sense of it, but it doesn’t make sense.”

Mi­laan is a com­bi­na­tion of the Hindi word mi­lan, mean­ing ‘union’, and the Urdu word elaan, or ‘dec­la­ra­tion’. “It was ba­si­cally a group of young peo­ple com­ing to­gether to make a dec­la­ra­tion of change,” Dhiren­dra says. In the 12 years since it launched, the main fo­cus for the foun­da­tion has shifted from chil­dren’s education – which in­cluded the found­ing of a K-12 school in the north­ern In­dian state of Ut­tar Pradesh – to sup­port­ing girls, more specif­i­cally. Why only girls? It’s good maths, says Dhiren­dra (who hap­pens to have a de­gree in that very sub­ject). “Look­ing at the con­straint of re­sources we have in the sec­tor, in­vest­ing in girls has the max­i­mum pos­si­ble im­pact, not only for their lives, but for the lives of other peo­ple,” he ex­plains. “In­vest­ing in girls and women is the sil­ver bul­let.” Ac­cord­ing to the World Bank and the United Na­tions, women are more likely to use their education and in­come to help their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties suc­ceed than men are. In fact, a 2018 re­port from the US Agency for In­ter­na­tional Developmen­t (USAID) says that a coun­try can in­crease its GDP by three per cent if just 10 per cent more of its girls go to school. In found­ing their own school, how­ever, the Mi­laan team no­ticed it was hard to get girls to stick around, largely be­cause their par­ents would pri­ori­tise a son’s education over a daugh­ter’s. In many poor ru­ral fam­i­lies, girls are ex­pected to stay home, help with house­work and pre­pare for mar­riage. “We would have cases where a mother would walk in and say there was a guest in the house, so the girl had to leave the class­room,” Dhiren­dra says. The ear­lier girls drop out of school, the more likely they are to get mar­ried be­fore the age of 18, which can have dire con­se­quences for them phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally and eco­nom­i­cally. Though tech­ni­cally il­le­gal, child mar­riage is more preva­lent in In­dia than any other coun­try – it’s thought that up to 27 per cent of In­dian girls marry be­fore they turn 18. To change that, the folks at Mi­laan de­cided girls not only needed to go to school, but also needed

help stand­ing up against so­cial norms that pre­vented them from fin­ish­ing their education.

The Girl Icons pro­gram, which kicked off in 2015, gives girls aged 12 to 18 the tools they need to be­come lead­ers in their com­mu­ni­ties. Once cho­sen through an ap­pli­ca­tion process, they en­ter a two-year pro­gram where they meet for a week ev­ery six months to talk and learn about things like gen­der, rights and laws, nu­tri­tion and re­pro­duc­tive health. They’re also trained to de­velop lead­er­ship skills, like com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ne­go­ti­a­tion (both of which are par­tic­u­larly use­ful if you need to con­vince Mum and Dad to let you go to school). For many of the par­tic­i­pants – es­pe­cially those who come from cir­cum­stances of ex­treme poverty or vi­o­lence – it’s the first time any­one has asked them to talk about things that have hurt them. “We joke about bring­ing as many tis­sues as they can to our first train­ing, be­cause peo­ple are go­ing to start cry­ing,” Dhiren­dra says. “This is like ther­apy for them – a chance to re­ally think through their ex­pe­ri­ence and try to make sense of it.”

Girls in the pro­gram are ex­pected to take those lessons back home and share them with 20 more girls in their com­mu­nity. They then meet as a peer group ev­ery two weeks to dis­cuss and iden­tify lo­cal is­sues they want to tackle. “It could be as sim­ple as san­i­ta­tion,” Dhiren­dra says. “Schools will lock their toi­lets be­cause they have no­body to clean them, so the girls have to fight to even get the toi­lets open.” Some par­tic­i­pants, like Ra­jku­mari, fo­cus on re­duc­ing the dropout rate in their neigh­bour­hood by iden­ti­fy­ing at-risk girls and con­vinc­ing their par­ents to re-en­rol them in school. Oth­ers tackle do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, early preg­nancy pre­ven­tion, or even ‘Eve teas­ing’: the In­dian eu­phemism for cat­call­ing.

Girl Icons have even stopped more than 50 child mar­riages from oc­cur­ring. Simpi Soni, a 15-year-old from a vil­lage called Daulat­pur, has talked mul­ti­ple fam­i­lies out of sell­ing their daugh­ters into early wed­lock. When one lo­cal man wanted to sell his teenage step­daugh­ters to help re­pay a debt, Simpi went to the po­lice. “Stop­ping a child mar­riage is ac­tu­ally putting your­self at risk,” Dhiren­dra says, “so we’ve de­signed a process for how to ad­dress them and re­port them.”

An­other pop­u­lar project is men­stru­a­tion education, where girls will put on street plays, de­sign posters or sim­ply chat to peo­ple about proper pe­riod hy­giene. It’s a huge deal for girls who are likely to skip or even drop out of school when they get their pe­ri­ods. Some­times, though, it’s less about the out­comes of the in­di­vid­ual projects, and more about giv­ing girls the push they need to think and act for them­selves. “Think about a girl who was pre­vi­ously not al­lowed to leave the house. That’s story one,” Dhiren­dra says. “Story two is her stand­ing on a stage with 100 peo­ple in front of her, and she’s speak­ing about men­stru­a­tion. When you vi­su­alise these two pictures to­gether, you can re­ally feel the change she has gone through.”

Girl Icons who fin­ish the two-year train­ing can con­tinue on to a five-year alumni en­gage­ment pro­gram, where they chat reg­u­larly with the Mi­laan team about things like education, ca­reers, schol­ar­ships and so­cial en­trepreneur­ship. Not ev­ery­one has to be­come a Malala Yousafzai-style cam­paigner, though. Girls who have fin­ished school and found em­ploy­ment serve as strong role mod­els for other young women they know.

“If you’re the first girl to grad­u­ate col­lege in your com­mu­nity, you’re al­ready a role model. It’s as sim­ple as that,” Dhiren­dra says. “Many com­mu­ni­ties couldn’t imag­ine there would be a time when a girl would even grad­u­ate year 10, and now she’s a col­lege grad­u­ate. That’s a big source of in­spi­ra­tion.”

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