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I Was Aware That Everything I Had Achieved Thus Far, All The Opportunities I Had Received, Was Only Because Of My Education. - Safeena Husain Of ‘Educate Girls’

This is the blueprint for our next endeavour of impacting 10 million learners over the next 10 years.

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I Was Aware That Everything I Had Achieved Thus Far, All The Opportunities I Had Received, Was Only Because Of My Education. - Safeena Husain Of ‘Educate Girls’
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Under the visionary leadership of its founder, Safeena Husain, ‘Educate Girls’ is a non-profit organisation dedicated to ensuring that no girl child is denied her right to education. With a strong battalion of dedicated volunteers and passionate employees, the organisation strives to ensure quality education for each girl child. Harnessing over 16 years of resilience, ‘Educate Girls’ commits to looking back at its achievements and using them as a slingshot into a triumphant future. In an exclusive interview with Outlook, Ms. Safeena Husain talks about her journey, achievements and the prospects of ‘Educate Girls’.

1. Can you share the story behind founding Educate Girls and how your background working with underserved communities worldwide influenced this initiative?

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My journey led me to founding Educate Girls. After graduating from the London School of Economics, I moved to the United States to work with a start-up in Silicon Valley. At this point, volunteering with grassroots organisations ignited my passion for social impact. I decided to shift my career towards community-based global development, dedicating over a decade to working with rural and urban underserved communities in South America, Africa, and Asia.

The decisive moment was after I returned to India. I was setting up a clinic for an assignment near Mussoorie (Uttarakhand, India), accompanied by my father. The women in that village asked him how many children he had. “This is it. She is the only child!” he said. The women expressed such deep sorrow as if having a daughter was a curse. This incident lingered in my mind, and I couldn’t help but reflect on girls in such communities, often seen as liabilities, who are excluded systematically from education due to deep-seated patriarchal biases and gender-based discrimination. At the same time, I was aware that everything I had achieved thus far, all the opportunities I had received, was only because of my education.

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I believe that education is the ‘silver bullet’ that can solve some of the world’s most pressing problems and unlock the potential of every girl in India. I started Educate Girls 16 years ago to solve the problem of girls’ education and as an extension of my personal story.

2. Educate Girls has achieved remarkable success with innovative projects like the Development Impact Bond. How do these initiatives contribute to bridging gender gaps in education in rural India?

As we were scaling our program, we realised that quality of service delivery could be the greatest casualty of scale. Being mindful of this, we did not want to simply replicate our program but ensure the same quality of delivery to the millionth girl. This was the genesis of the Development Impact Bond (DIB) in education, which ties funding to education outcomes.

We were evaluated against two metrics: enrolment and learning outcomes. At the 3-year term’s end, a third-party evaluator found that we had exceeded our targets by 92% on enrolment of out-of-school girls (OOSG) and 160% on learning.

The success of piloting the world’s first-ever DIB in education not only showcased the feasibility of a results-based model but also its potential. While immersed in the DIB, our data analysis brought forth a significant insight: 70% of out-of-school girls in Bhilwara, the DIB's focus area, were concentrated in only 7% of the villages. This revelation prompted us to investigate similar hotspot patterns across India. National extrapolation of our findings revealed that 40% of out-of-school girls were concentrated in just 5% of India’s villages. Armed with this knowledge, we strategically expanded our efforts to these specific villages, extending our reach from one state during the DIB phase to four states: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar. This expansion played a pivotal role in mobilising more out-of-school girls and successfully helping them reintegrate into the educational system.

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3. Educate Girls has become a pivotal force in addressing girls' education. What key milestones have you reached since its inception, and what are your long-term goals for the organisation?

Being bold and ambitious has been part of our DNA from the very beginning. To be in service of that last girl in the most rural, remote, marginalised community has always been our purpose.

Over our remarkable 16-year journey, our relentless pursuit of that last girl has yielded numerous milestones. Whether experimenting with an outcome-based model like the Development Impact Bond in education or leveraging advanced analytics and AI to help us scale and become Asia’s first TED Audacious Project, each achievement has played an integral role.

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At the core of our journey is the strength of 18,000 Team Balika community volunteers - one of India's largest community volunteer bases - who helped us bring 1.4 million girls back to school and support over 1.95 million students with remedial learning.

Our work really hinges on synergy. We strongly align with government initiatives like the Right to Education Act and Samagra Shiksha. By leveraging the government’s existing investment in schools and engaging with our community volunteers, we identify, enrol, and retain out-of-school girls and improve foundational skills for all children.

Our next vision is bold: 10 x 10 – impacting 10 million learners over the next 10 years. We want to build a continuum for our girls to ensure they are not just completing their education but are also linked to opportunities like employment or skilling. We want to stand shoulder to shoulder with them till they build agency and resilience and can confidently shape their destinies.

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4. How can we ensure equitable access to opportunities for girls and promote their retention in school after enrollment?

In my 16-year journey of working on girls’ education, I have never met a girl who said to me, “I want to stay at home,” “I want to graze the cattle,” I want to look after the siblings,” or that “I want to be a child bride.” Every single girl I meet wants to go to school. But to secure their basic right to an education, girls still have to overcome many barriers. Among them, a patriarchal mindset is one of the biggest barriers keeping girls out of school. The primary focus of our work is towards changing these mindsets that are deeply rooted within the community. But the challenges don’t end for our girls with just stepping back into school.

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Once a girl is in school, we ensure she stays and learns well. Our focus moves towards retention and creating a conducive learning environment. Educate Girls partners with School Management Committees (SMCs) to guarantee the availability of essential infrastructure, such as separate toilets for girls and access to clean drinking water, addressing fundamental needs that contribute to their continued presence in school. Government initiatives like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and other schemes at both national and state levels have boosted girls’ education, keeping girls in schools.

Recognising the challenges many first-generation learners face, we have implemented a remedial learning program within schools. This is integral to retention, as these children often lack support at home. But it doesn’t stop there. To help our girls access opportunities beyond the school system, we equip our girls with essential life skills. Our approaches have yielded significant results, with a remarkable 93% retention rate since our inception.

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5. You recently won the WISE Prize award, how does it feel? How is the WISE Prize different from the other awards that you have received?

Receiving the WISE Prize was incredibly special. It not only recognises significant contributions to education but also raises the status of education in prestige to other areas, such as science, literature, peace and economics, for which major international awards exist.

Bringing our girls’ stories to such a global stage was a great honour and a deeply moving experience for me. Girls, the world over, are the true winners of this prize. Because this award shines a light on their struggles and recognises their achievements. I am grateful to our gender champions and the amazing supporters who have been there every step of the way. If anything, it only fuels us to dream bigger and bolder.

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6. What is next on the horizon, for Educate Girls, especially after the WISE Prize?

Over the past 16 years, Educate Girls has focused on girls until the 8th grade, aligning with the Right to Education Act, which has contributed to a significant increase in girls completing this level. However, there is a substantial drop-off beyond this point. In India, 82 million young women aged 15 to 29 are Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEET). These young women lack awareness of their rights, face limited prospects, and are often confined to informal labour or household chores. They lack agency and control over physical and sexual health decisions, household-level choices, and broader community or social decisions.

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And I believe that education is an undeniable catalyst for change, and this truth is distilled in the words of Nagina Bano. Nagina Bano was a tortured and abandoned child bride. She used her education to survive and build a future for herself and her children. Now, working as a fierce champion of girls’ education, she told me, “My education is the only thing that is truly mine. No one can beat it out of me, no one can steal it, no flood, no famine can take it away, my education will be with me till my dying day.”

For our next phase, the key ingredients are human capital and technology. AI can help us find the most vulnerable girls faster and help us deliver quality education at scale while the human touch remains the indispensable element on the frontline. It is through human interactions that we inspire, instil aspiration, build confidence, and provide the crucial support needed for our girls to progress confidently on their learning journey. In essence, the synergy of human compassion and technological innovation becomes our powerhouse for transformative change.

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This is the blueprint for our next endeavour of impacting 10 million learners over the next 10 years.

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