'They called us mad dogs!' Global icon Safeena Husain’s tale of putting 1.2 lakh rural daughters in school


"I was going home to home talking about girls' right to education. I remember having countless doors slammed in my face and the mistreatments hurled at me and my team."

The answers to some questions aren’t revelations, they are revolutions.

The scorn in a peer's question, “Why are you investing in a daughter’s education?” can catapult a father into betting his bottom dollar on a woman’s potential greatness.

A commonplace question hurled at you in the Indian hinterlands “Ah, you only have one daughter?” can invoke the ire of a passionate woman to mutiny against these dogmas.

Presenting the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to someone who has never been asked that before because she was a girl can open her eyes to a brand new world full of hope and possibilities.

Both the subject and poser of these questions, globally acclaimed changemaker Safeena Husain tells YourStory all about her journey of sending 1.2 lakh Indian rural girls to school.

Safeena Husain

The first question

Safeena grew up in Delhi and graduated from the London School of Economics (LSE). While she was applying to universities in England, her father’s friends and family tried to dissuade him from investing in her education because, in their opinion, ‘any investment in a girl’s higher education would eventually turn out to be a waste.’ A few years later, Safeena found out that he had sold his business to fund her education and also distanced himself from all these people. “I could have been another victim of the patriarchy, had it not been for all the support I have received from him,” says the 45-year-old.

Upon graduating from LSE, she moved to Silicon Valley in the US and was a part of the IT revolution. “I left after a short stint as I wanted to do something more impactful,” she recounts. She went on to in the development sector for more than 15 years, including seven years as Executive Director of Child Family Health International, a US-based NGO, and several more working on projects to serve rural and urban communities in Ecuador, Mexico, Bolivia, India, and South Africa.

But, as evidenced by various experts, India is home to one of the largest populations of underserved communities. I had always wanted to return and work in India.

The second question

The real turning point for her came when she was setting up a clinic in Uttarakhand, India. She and her father, while crossing a village, were asked by some locals how many children he had. When he informed them that Safeena was his only child, they started lamenting as if it were a curse. She says,

"I could have treated this as just another field experience and walked down that mountain back to a world that was full of opportunities, and had a career and money. But I thought, ‘I can walk away but what about the girls in that particular village and millions of others like them?’ This is where I picked gender equality and girl child education as the core issues that I would like to work around in Indian communities."

She approached government agencies for statistics, and was left baffled. Back then, there were 26 critical gender gap (w.r.t education) districts in India and of these nine were in Rajasthan alone. The state was, and continues to be, at the epicentre of female illiteracy, child marriage and dowry, teenage pregnancy leading to mortality, and countless other issues. India has the largest number of illiterate women in the world with three million eligible yet out-of-school girls and the female literacy rate is a poor 61 percent. Safeena decided to pick Pali district to commence a small test project, leading to the birth of Educate Girls in 2007.

A classroom in a school where Educate Girls operates

Back to the basics

Educate Girls operates in the highest burden regions of India with a three-pronged focus: it seeks to find all out-of-school girls using existing government data as well as its own door-to-door surveys in its project villages, increase their enrollment and retention, and improve learning outcomes of all children.

Educate Girls also believes in imparting life skills to girls, so they can become ‘girl leaders’ someday. Finally, it helps the school administration to execute ‘school improvement plans’, because better infrastructure often helps retain girls and even boys.

Safeena also decided to train one teacher from every school in CLT (Creative Learning and Teaching) methods. So, instead of the traditional blackboard and chalk style of rote learning, the students learn through pictures, puzzles that can help them find words, alphabet cut-outs they can put together and other uncommon learning aids that whet their appetite for learning. This methodology has resulted in improved learning outcomes across Hindi, English, and Math, notes Safeena.

Team Balika 

Teaching a man how to fish rather than handing the fish to them has proven to be a surefire way of development, and Safeena applied that principle to her work too. “To popularise the concept, I needed local voices. This is how we arrived at ‘Team Balika’; which is a group of ‘community volunteers’ who work as champions of girl’s education in their respective villages,” she explains.

These volunteers are often in the age bracket of 18-25 and among the more educated of the lot. They are trained in community mobilisation and outreach, CLT techniques, leadership, and motivation. “We have a catchphrase – ‘my village, my problem, I am the solution’. This is a way of bringing the power of change back into the hands of the villagers,” she says. This also helped her team to reach out to a large number of beneficiaries, as it ensured that they were not perceived as “outsiders” in the communities.

In fact, they believe in joining hands with the people and organisations that have already been engaged in the development of the area like the government or existing NGOs. “Whether it’s our public-private partnership model or community-ownership model, we ensure that we include every unit at every level of government, school, and civic machinery to achieve maximum impact. The fact that we do not create parallel systems makes our programme model smart and scalable,” she says.

Team Balika hard at work

 Her impact in numbers

Over the past nine years, Educate Girls has scripted a beautiful story. What started as a 50-school test project in Pali soon metamorphosed into a 500-school pilot project, and then expanded to nine districts in Rajasthan, one in Madhya Pradesh, across a total of over 1,20,000 schools spread across 8,000 villages reaching over 15 lakh children annually. “From the very first girl we brought in school, we today credit ourselves with having enrolled over 1,20,000 out-of-school girls! You can only imagine the multiplier effect this would have!” she says.

The impact of Educate Girls’ work can be seen in the numbers – over 90 percent enrollment of girls and 93 percent retention of girls in school. And, from a handful of people in 2007, Educate Girls has touched the 1000th employee mark in 2016-17. Team Balika is now an 8,000-strong network of champions.

Educate Girls has been honoured with a number of coveted awards, including the Skoll Foundation Award, The WISE Award, the Stars Impact Award, the Millennium Alliance Award, the World Bank India Development Marketplace Award, etc.

In 2015, Educate Girls launched the world’s first Development Impact Bond (DIB) in education in partnership with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) and UBS Optimus Foundation (UBSOF). This is a three-year pilot project and aims to become a ‘proof of concept’ for replication and scale-up in the education sector and beyond.

Test of her spirit

"Our patriarchal societies, especially the communities we work with, do not really appreciate their mindsets being questioned. And there I was going home-to-home investigating about their girls and talking about their right to have an education! I remember having countless doors slammed in my face and the mistreatments hurled at me and my team. They would call us mad dogs!

But, I think raising funds is the toughest of them all because our model does not have the potential to generate income; there is sole dependency on donation funding. But, my faith in my people and the thought of the last girl at the bottom of the pyramid has kept me motivated in my journey and given me the strength to overcome every challenge,” she says.

Dealing with processes in India was another source of stress. “I can say by experience that a lot of tasks are much easier abroad in terms of setting up an organisation, getting taxation certificates, and setting up the legal entity and compliance framework. These can can be confusing, difficult, and time-consuming in India,” she says.

Third and final question

“I once met an out-of-school girl and asked her “what do you want to be?” to which she replied, “Nobody has ever asked me this question so I have not thought about it.” The same girl was enrolled in school by Educate Girls and today she aspires to be a police officer! That is the power of education!” says an emotional Safeena.

Educate Girls is financially supported by various international foundations, trusts, corporate organisations, and philanthropic organisations. The Qatar Foundation’s Educate A Child Initiative, UBS Optimus Foundation, LGT Venture Philanthropy, Cartier Charitable Foundation, Fossil Foundation, Marico Innovation Foundation are some of its biggest funders. Between 2017 and 2019, Educate Girls will be covering six more districts to reach over 27,500 schools and over 30 lakh children. Moreover, it is also now in the second year of the three-year DIB pilot project and on track to achieving the deliverables promised.


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