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.”