An Indian non-profit is first TED Audacious Project to be chosen from Asia

Topics education | Literature | Weekend

It was when Educate Girls CEO Safeena Hussain personally came across three little girls -  “Achuki”, “Naraz” Nath and “Antim Bala” - that she decided to up the ante; she at least could no longer live with this. 

“Achuki” meaning arrived unwanted, “Naraz” meaning angry and “Antim Bala” meaning the “last girl” were named to capture the reaction of the family when they were born. Naraz’s family was so “angry” at her birth that she was named to reflect the mood. In contrast, Antim Bala was more of a hopeful epithet. Achuki reflected resigned acceptance of one’s ill fate. Rural India and political correctness don’t go hand in hand where several men and families argue that a goat is an asset while a girl is a liability. 

That’s when she set herself the mission of attempting to get each and every out of school girl into school in India. Her aim therefore was to target an estimated 4 million girls, the third highest after Nigeria and Pakistan. What entire governments aim for, Safeena wanted to do alone.

She knew better than most that the benefits of educating a single girl go well beyond just that. Anyone familiar with the rural Indian landscape will be aware that it is dotted with girls who marry much too early and often don’t survive childbirth. Many suffer domestic violence, or are trafficked, and few have any hope of earning any income through their lifetime. An education ensures that the girl will have a smaller, healthier family and will be 50% more likely to immunize her kids. She’ll leave her mark on future generations, as climate scientists rank girls’ education as number six out of 80 actions that can reverse global warming. She’ll be twice as likely to educate her own girls, keeping the cycle going.  

Safeena’s Mad Model

In 2007, soon after she returned from the UK and USA, where she led the US Child Health Family International for seven years and worked closely with underserved communities in Ecuador, Mexico, South Africa and the Amazon Jungle, Safeena knew the area she wanted to work in : girls education but she had no idea where to begin. She approached the ministry of HRD and they handed her a list of 26 districts where the gap between boys and girls educationally was critical. Nine of the 26 were in Rajasthan and that’s where she focused her early efforts. The problem she found was very acute in villages and areas where poverty and social marginalization coincided. “The SC/ST, minorities and other poor and marginalized communities often fail to see value in educating their girls and that’s where the gap is the highest”, she adds.

Safeena Hussain with young girls her NGO is helping educate

How Educate Girls worked was through community mobilization. In every identified district, teams would go into each and every house in all the villages and find the girls who were either not being sent to school or had dropped out on one pretext or the other. Then, the team would hold a series of community meetings, neighbourhood meetings and even individual counseling sessions with families to bring girls back into school. The volunteers – Team Balika - are from within the village community itself. Follow-up visits would ensure that those admitted were not withdrawn. Data was also gathered from the schools directly.

In the early days, many who came across Educate Girls including donors dismissed Safeena as a madwoman or a woman possessed because her goals sounded so lofty and her model so impractical. In a country as vast as India, who could possibly visit every house in every village? Few governments would be aiming this high. It sounded too big, too hairy or too audacious to ever become reality. In fact, some funders even refused to participate on the grounds that her model is too painstaking and impractical.

But Safeena’s desire to “not leave a single girl out” stems from her own experience as a child. Raised as a young girl in Delhi almost single-handedly by her mother, the odds during her childhood were stacked against her. For someone who struggled to finish her own schooling due to a variety of circumstances, it was when an aunt of hers whisked her off to London, giving her an opportunity to study unfettered (she graduated from LSE) and explore herself that she found her path. What if they left out one Safeena in one house in one village? That’s the thought that structured the way Educate Girls worked. “Even at a personal level, there are few who understand the value of an education as keenly as me “, she adds. That it could be a game-changer, she herself could testify. 

She knew what’d she’d set out to do wasn’t a bed of roses but which pressing problem had been resolved without struggle? No pain, no gain was how she viewed it.

Technology Helps With The Aaha Moment

Educate Girl volunteers conducting a door-to-door survey

In the last ten years or so, Educate Girls has grown at a neck break pace. The network of community volunteers and field staff has enrolled close to 500,000 girls in public elementary schools, with 90% retention rate spread over 13,000 villages. Learning outcomes have risen by an average of 25-30% for students of all genders, thanks to their remedial curriculum. The organisation now has 1800 full time staff and 14,000 Team Balika, who work on a voluntary basis.

Moreover, as with anything being done on such scale, technology had slowly become an integral part of the movement. The door-to-door surveys had started happening on smart phones, and each village was geo-tagged.

So, wittingly or unwittingly, as Educate Girls and their teams went about knocking on doors, they were also gaining something very valuable. Data. And unlike most data collected by researchers, this was not sample based and was therefore free of sampling errors. This was authentic data collected real time and evidence gathered painstakingly that gave the accurate picture. 

That’s when Safeena and her team realized they were sitting on a gold mine. Using all the data gathered over one decade and the latest techniques of machine learning, analytics and data sciences, they reached an “aaha” moment of sorts. They realized that out of school girls tend to occur in “hot spots” and that 5 per cent of the villages in India had 40 per cent of the out of school girls. “We now had the tools to identify the clusters and to target specifically those regions that faced the most acute crisis”, explains Safeena. Here was something she finally realized would help make her task easier. They’d still have to go door to door but they could do it in the hot spots and get better results.

That’s how the number of 1.6 million in 35,000 villages was arrived at. The fervor and zeal that foxed many led her to where she found herself. That’s when Safeena decided to go whole hog.

Audacious in 2019

What if a million black women launched a health revolution? What if we supported millions of African farmers in growing more food – for themselves and the world? What if plants could help slow down climate change? What if we could massively reduce disease from parasitic worms in Africa?  What if every child came to school on Day one ready to learn?

These were some of the “What If” ideas that TED’s Audacious project was mulling in New York and had decided to support. The project is an initiative “that shows what humanity can accomplish when bold ideas meet visionary, generous supporters”. Started in 2018, the project invites visionary social entrepreneurs and nonprofits to dream big and helps to shape those dreams into multi-year plans that are both viable and sustainable. The project then invites its coalition of partners including leading nonprofits and individual donors, along with the public to pool their resources to help finance these ambitious ideas. 

"As a collaborative funding initiative, The Audacious Project aims to catalyze social impact on a grand scale by convening investors and social entrepreneurs to channel funds towards bold solutions to the world’s urgent challenges," explains Anna Verghese, Executive Director of The Audacious Project. So far, US$ 1 billion in funding has been raised for 15 Audacious projects, selected in 2018 and 2019.

In 2019, Educate Girls applied to TED’s Audacious programme and was chosen as the first project out of Asia. The proposition put forward : what if we could empower more than a million girls to enter the classroom? 1.6 million girls spread over 35,000 Indian villages are to be targeted over the next five years for which the estimated funding requirement is around US$ 108 million. The numbers stared anyone including the TED team selecting projects in the face. Since 2007, Educate Girls has grown from a 50-village test project to a 13,000-village movement, working at a scale greater than the education ministries of many small countries. There’s no reason why 13,000 can’t become 35,000 and why 500,000 cannot go up to 1.6 million. 

The distance Educate Girls needs to cover appears to be within touching distance. With a fairly determined Safeena at the helm of affairs, there seems little doubt in anyone’s mind that every one of these 1.6 million girls will be found and educated.


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