Our lives are driven by stories. Stories inspire, teach, clarify, and mobilize. I have always strongly believed that narratives have the power to create lasting change.
Over the years I have met many inspiring girls from some of the most marginalized communities in the world. Their incredible stories of courage and success against considerable odds are the reasons I work each day. Their hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable hardships, inspires me to create a world where girls can explore their full potential and lead dignified lives.
India is home to 111 million adolescent girls. By population, this makes them the 10th largest country in the world, larger even than Mexico and Japan. There are many stories to be discovered among them. Their powerful stories need to be amplified many times over so that it reaches and inspires as many adolescent girls as possible.
There is a plethora of evidence that unequivocally proves investing in adolescent girls increases income levels, decreases crime, improves maternal and neonatal health, decreases tensions due to ethnic diversity and improves literacy rates. Empowering girls is the one single investment that can drive all of these socio-economic changes.
Yet, even today, 39 percent of adolescent girls in India between the ages of 15 and 18 are not attending any educational institution, according to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. A vast majority, about 65 percent, are “either engaged in household activities, are dependents, or, are engaged in begging, etc.” The data reveals that 27 percent of girls get married before they turn 18, and around 7 percent even before the age of 15.
The first step is to realize that girls have the inherent potential to drive systemic and inter-generational change – to be aware of just how powerful girls have been as agents of change across the world.
Over the course of the four years of our program’s journey, we have had the good fortune to work with several of these girls. Rajni, from a Dalit community in Sitapur, is one example. A courageous young woman who fought and prevented her own child marriage at 15, she went on to stop six others from child marriages, and became the first girl in her community to ever graduate. Or Rajkumari from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, who came from a strong patriarchal community, and not only successfully fought for her education, but inspired more than 20 girls to go back to school after they dropped out, is another. There are not the only anecdotes.
Equipped with knowledge and skills, our “Girl Icons” are exemplary leaders who have brought girls back to school, stopped child marriages, built toilets, built awareness on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) and Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH), and worked relentlessly to improve the lives of adolescent girls in their communities by creating safe spaces for dialogue and action around grassroots problems. They have collectively stood up against discrimination, violence, and abuse—and won.
As the Girl Icon Program completes its fourth year, we have 378 adolescent Girl Icons in India who are part of a thriving network of girl leaders. Collectively, they impact the lives of more than 10,000 girls in more than 40 districts across four states.
Now picture one of these girls in every village in India. Imagine a growing movement of leaders like Rajni and Rajkumari, fighting together for education, and against child marriage, standing up and instigating collective action against social injustices on all fronts.
This is what Milaan is working every day to build. A movement of girl leaders to transform India.
By 2030, we will reach 10 million girls across India. 10 million stories to inspire and build a new, more inclusive and more equal India.
Connect with us on social:
Dhirendra Pratap Singh is the CEO and Co-founder of the Milaan Foundation. Under his leadership, Milaan launched the Girl Icon Program to inspire, nurture and amplify the voices of girl leaders as empowered agents of change in their communities and the world. Dhirendra also has worked with international and national development organizations like Vidya Grants India, United Way of Delhi, ASER, and others.
He has received the Karamveer Puruskar and Youth Ambassador for Peace Award by Universal Peace Federation. In 2017, he was part of the Indian delegation to the South Asian Youth Summit in Afghanistan. He is currently part of Artira – Leadership Accelerator Program by Phicus Social Solutions at IIM Bangalore. He is also the Co-Founder of Azadi, a US-based impact venture with a commitment to making menstruation a non-issue in India. He also was recently selected as one of 30 Fellows for Gratitude Network’s 2020 Cohort of Changemakers working to support children and youth around the globe. He actively advocates for equal rights for girls both nationally and globally.