India recently ranked as the worst place to be a woman amongst the Group of 20 nations in a poll of 370 gender specialists. Since 2011, VOICE 4 Girls, has worked to improve the status of women in India by empowering over 1500 young girls across the country.The VOICE 4 Girls story starts in August 2010, when three young American women found themselves working as consultants for affordable private schools in low-income communities in Hyderabad, India through the IDEX Fellowship in Social Enterprise. In January 2011, the Nike Foundation approached Gray Matters Capital, which sponsors the IDEX Fellowship, about starting English summer camps for low-income girls in India. Fellows Averil Spencer, Allison Gross, and Ilana Shushansky, jumped at the opportunity to help.
“We hit the ground running with market research, but as we were talking to girls we realized there was a lack of knowledge around topics necessary for adolescent girls to be happy, healthy, and safe,” explains Spencer, Director of VOICE 4 Girls. One of the most glaring examples came from a young girl who told of how she got her period for the first time, and not knowing why she was bleeding, came to the conclusion that she had cancer. She cried every day and hid from her parents because she was too scared to tell them that she thought she was dying. “We said okay, in no world should a girl go through this. Puberty is hard enough, but not understanding the changes your body is going through is alienating, and makes you vulnerable and at risk” says Spencer.
Women in India face significant discrimination in health and education, but they can also play a powerful role in poverty alleviation. Nike’s Girl Effect campaign, which sponsors VOICE 4 Girls, works with girls to break cyclical poverty. The campaign believes that if provided education in English, financial literacy, health, and women’s rights, girls can change the status of women in society by impacting the perspective of her family, the family she marries in to, and her own children, reaching three generations and beyond.
Camp VOICE launched in May 2011 as four-week summer camp that teaches English through lessons on topics such as health, nutrition, hygiene, reproduction, women’s rights, and body expression. VOICE camps are hosted by affordable private schools for their girl students. Young women counselors and teachers run the camps, which builds their capacity in leadership and teaching. With camp and partner licensing fees, it’s a scalable business model that still allows VOICE 4 Girls to work closely with each school to conform to their needs.
VOICE 4 Girls hosts camps in schools throughout Hyderabad and Uttarakhand, and in Mumbai beginning summer 2013. They’ve also scaled in the past year from the three co-founders to a team of 10. As a small start-up, Spencer says they hire people with passion, self-motivation, and creativity.
VOICE 4 Girls is now also launching a year-round co-ed school program. “While we still think that girls need an all-female environment to discover themselves and feel comfortable and confident, they also need to feel that way around boys,” explains Spencer. “Gender inequality is two-sided. We can work with girls as much as we want, but brothers, fathers, and male community members also need to be educated and supportive of these girls.” Between their year-round and summer programs, VOICE 4 Girls will educate and empower over 3000 children in India by the end of summer 2013, and they plan to eventually reach hundreds of thousands of children across India.