Meet The Woman Educating Girls In India’s Hinterland

Safeena Husain

“My education gave me the opportunity to be the person that I wanted to be,” said Safeena Husain, elaborating on the thought behind Educate Girls. An active social worker, Husain’s Educate Girls currently works with over 21,000 schools across 15 districts in India.

The pilot plan started in a school in Pali district in 2004. So far, the organisation has enrolled over 200,000 girls in schools, claiming to have retained 90% of their students.

Educate Girls focuses on three objectives – increased enrolment and retention of girls and improved learning outcomes for all children. It follows systemic reforms as its program model.

Husain grew up in Delhi and went on to graduate from London School of Economics (LSE). She then moved to the US where she studied community-based global development.

Her father’s daughter

She sees her father as a champion of her own educational desires. She told SheThePeople.TV, “As a young girl, my father allowed me to live in an ashram (monastery) in Rishikesh, read scriptures and follow my own path. I know many people had dissuaded him from sending me (read ‘a daughter’) to a foreign land for higher education, but he supported my decision without any questions asked.”

So what triggered her to start Educate Girls, she recollected, “When I was on an assignment setting up a clinic in Nainital (Uttarakhand) where my father had accompanied me. The women in that village asked my father how many children he had to which he replied “This is it. She is the only child!” Hearing this, the women felt deep sorrow for my father as if it were such a curse to have a daughter.”

“This incident stayed with me for several days and I could not hold myself from thinking about the other girls living in such communities who are often seen as a liability and a burden,” she added.

Shocking stats

So when she returned to India for good in 2004, she thought of conducting a test project in a region with the poorest indicators in terms of girls’ education. But when she approached government agencies for information, she was shocked with the alarming statistics.

“Back then, there were 26 critical gender-gap (w.r.t education) districts in India; 9 of these were in Rajasthan alone. The state was, and continues to be, at the epicentre of female illiteracy, child marriage, dowry, teenage pregnancy leading to mortality and other issues,” said Husain.

But it was in 2007 that she actually founded the organisation after Educate Girls crossed the 500 schools mark and saw some success in the programme. Initially, She started work with a small team, going door-to-door in the villages looking for out-of-school girls.

“I remember having countless doors slammed in my face, they would call us ‘mad dogs’! Many families were sceptical even talking to us because we enquired about daughters.”

And now while things have become slightly better in the villages that Educate Girls work in, Husain says that convincing parents is still a huge challenge when tapping into a new district.

There is a huge divide between girls from urban and rural areas. And Husain in her early visits to the village realized girls graze cattle or fetch water while their brothers got ready for school.

“For so many girls, it’s a fight everyday to make it to school – they manage all the chores, help parents with agricultural work and sometimes even walk several kilometres before they can enter the school compound. Their enthusiasm and tenacity keeps me and our entire team going.”

However, with the efforts of Educate Girls, girls, who a few years ago, thought that they were less important than boys, today play with boys in schools. “Young girls who were taught to be confined to kitchen today aspire of having a career. They are more aware of their rights and understand the importance of health, hygiene, nutrition, delayed pregnancy, financial independence etc. They are less vulnerable today,” said Husain matter-of-factly.

Not a smooth journey

But the journey of reaching out to 2 lakh girls wasn’t a smooth one for her. She had to fight a patriarchal mind-set in underprivileged communities at the grassroots.

On the work-related challenges she faced, Husain said, “In these secluded belts, finding talent with the right skills and competencies to run our program is the first big challenge we faced right after the organisation was founded.”

“Managing government-relations was also a taxing job because of the public-private-partnership nature of our model, where there is a need to sign an MOU with the government. We hold a strong credibility today, but back then this was a huge challenge.”

“Raising funds is the toughest aspect of running an NGO like Educate Girls. Because our model does not have the potential to generate income, there is high dependency on funding from grants, investors and the government,” said Husain.

But success stories from the hinterlands is what brightens Husain’s day.

She shares an anecdote, “A family told me that they take great pride in the fact that their daughter knows English names of animals, vegetables etc. The mother further told us ‘These days we do not wait for my husband to accompany us to my mother’s home. My daughter reads out the bus number ensuring we board the right bus!’.”

This is the power of an idea to change lives. This idea became an NGO and today so many girls are getting education, thanks to Safeena Husain.