Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The biggest change I see today is that girls are dreaming: WISE Award winner Safeena Husain

Husain is the first Indian woman to win the WISE Award for Education 2023 as an advocate for girls' education in India. Here's an exclusive interview with the winner of the highest recognition of its kind in the field of education

Anubhuti Matta
Published: Nov 28, 2023 10:16:57 AM IST
Updated: Nov 28, 2023 10:55:48 AM IST

The biggest change I see today is that girls are dreaming: WISE Award winner Safeena HusainSafeena Husain (in green), founder of the NGO Educate Girls, is the first Indian woman to win the WISE Award for Education 2023 as an advocate for girls' education in India.

Safeena Husain spent a part of her childhood growing up in the slums of Delhi. She went on to graduate from London School of Economics, becoming the first person from her family to study overseas.

Today, she is the recipient of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Award 2023, a global recognition for an individual or a team for outstanding contribution to education, a first for any Indian woman.

In 2012, Madhav Chavan won the $500,000 prize, known to be the highest recognition of its kind in the field of education in the world. He is the founder of Pratham, a non-governmental organisation working towards providing quality education to millions of underserved children in India.

Recognising the power of education, especially for girls, and where it got her, Husain founded Educate Girls in 2007, a non-profit organisation dedicated to empowering communities through promoting girls’ education.

Working in partnership with the government, the NGO currently operates in villages of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar. Volunteers help enrol and retain out-of-school girls, mobilising more than 1.4 million girls for enrolment to date in more than 24,000 villages.

In an exclusive interview with Forbes India, Husain recounts her journey from the slums to earning a name on the global stage, and shares the changes she’s beginning to see in the country.

Q. Why choose girls’ education as your focus area, given you’ve worked in software and health care earlier?

Given my childhood, school became a safe space, a refuge for me. Due to several constraints, my education was interrupted for three years, and in that period I was told to get married instead of pursuing it further. I would not want anyone to be in that position. I don’t want girls or women to believe that they can’t do something in life because others around them have no aspirations for them or for themselves. Going to LSE changed my perception about myself and how the world saw me. And, I wanted every girl to have that opportunity, especially because my heart beats for out-of-school girls.

Q. How did your journey with educating girls begin?

After working at a startup in Silicon Valley, I embarked on a journey to explore the world of volunteering and non-profit. I was working in very rural and remote areas, and with marginalised communities, in the health care sector. Upon coming back to India, with the experience I had gained, I saw there was no scalable model for girls’ education in India. I started very small, working in partnership with the government. We started with villages in Rajasthan’s Pali, and we grew from there. Today, we have a robust network of over 18,000 community volunteers and a workforce of more than 3,000 employees who actively work to identify, enrol, and retain out-of-school girls.

Also read: When will Indian CSR come of age?

Q. What does your work involve?

The model is simple. We look at rural and remote tribal areas that have the highest concentrations of girls who are out of school. We go door-to-door and find girls who are not going to schools, counsel the families, enrol them in the closest government school and ensure they’re supported and are learning. The second aspect is to make it scalable, and that can happen if we tackle the mindset of people in these areas who still believe that a goat is an asset, but a girl is a liability. For that to happen, it has to come from somebody from the villages, a voice they can trust and is reliable. So, we devised a ‘Team Balika’ model to train a young change maker from the village who is educated. We emphasise on them being educated because they would know the value of education. We work with these change makers, go door-to-door, and so far it has been a very sustainable model.

Q. Technology has played an important part in making your model scalable. How?

Ours is a kind of job that is very execution driven, effort-heavy, and very boots-on-the-ground. Therefore, it becomes very slow. When I started, I was worried how long will it take for change to come about. Back then, according to my calculations, to reach a million girls, my estimate was 45 years. To accelerate that, we incorporated the role of artificial intelligence [AI], looked at publicly available data, and drew up a heat map. It showed us that 5 percent of villages in India have 40 percent of out-of-school girls. It helped us concentrate our efforts only in those areas. So it’s a good mix of AI, machine learning, and advanced predictive analysis that helped us get to a million girls in five years. Therefore, technology helped us add speed and scale. Education is every girl’s right, and she needs to get it today, not in 45 years.

Q. In 16 years of being on the field, what are some of the changes you’re beginning to see and what are the challenges that persist?

In the beginning, if I went to a girl’s home, I had to talk to the family about why girls’ education is important. Today, I don’t need to have that conversation, as in general people have become much more aware. I see people are being to articulate their needs more clearly. Girls continue to drop out of school mostly because of poverty. Poverty leads to migration, which leads to a large number of girls dropping out. The burden of family care is another factor. Among the girls themselves, there is low aspiration, confidence, and support. They are scared, they are not motivated, and others around her aren’t either. And, there are so many gatekeepers in the way of her pursuing an education. However, now, a there is a whole generation of girls that have grown up with some level of education, so things are moving in a positive direction.

I have also found that young people in these areas are looking for a purpose, so the number of people, especially young ones, wanting to be a change maker or a volunteer have increased, including men. Today, men have become allies, and it sends out a very strong message if a young man stands up in the village and says that every girl in his village has to go to school.

Also read: How Ashish Dhawan gave up his high-flying investing career to solve India's education crisis

Q. Which is a bigger problem: Girls not being enrolled in schools or dropping out?

The benefits of the Right to Education Act are applicable to students up to Class 8. So, basic problems such as not having a separate girls’ toilet—one of the major reasons keeping girls from school—have been tackled very well. Hence, from Class 1 to 8, we’ve solved many problems. But, the bigger problem is for the girls beyond that, for adolescent girls and young women, for whom a large chunk of the work needs to be done. During the pandemic, a large number of girls were married off because it was cheaper. The enrolment of children—small and adolescent—continued, because various schemes were related to it. But, the lag was suffered largely by adolescent girls because they went through a transition—marriage, children. We need a robust second chance mechanism, and a lifeline to re-enter if you drop off the system. Right now, there is no recourse for them to be able to continue.

Q. Change is slow process. What keeps you motivated to go on?

Women. And, my daughters.

Nagina Bano, a woman we helped study, once said to me that her education is the only thing that is truly hers. She said, “Nobody can steal it, nobody can burn it, nobody can beat it, nobody can rape it. It will be mine till my dying day.” I thought it was so profound. It truly is the one gift you’ve received, which is yours.

Another woman, Papita, is today the sarpanch [village head] of her village and she’s allocating a majority of her budget towards girls’ education.

Women like Nagina Bano and Papita keep me going. The fact that girls are now dreaming is the biggest motivation for me.