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She Got 80,000 Girls To Attend School And Won A $1.25 Million Prize

Safeena Husain says: "I educate girls." Her efforts have brought 80,000 Indian girls into school; last week she received a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship (above).
Courtesy of Skoll Foundation/Gabriel Diamond
Safeena Husain says: "I educate girls." Her efforts have brought 80,000 Indian girls into school; last week she received a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship (above).

Have you ever had an "aha" moment? Suddenly, it becomes clear you have to make a change in your life, and you actually go ahead and do it.

Safeena Husain, 43, has had three "aha" moments. She ran away from home in India to an ashram. She let her fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages to plot a new career in the U.S. And she found her true calling after a soul-shaking encounter in a Himalayan village.

As a result of her "ahas," she created a nonprofit called Educate Girls. And last week she was honored for her efforts: She's one of four recipients of the 2015 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, which comes with a $1.25 million prize.

Husain's first "aha" came after high school. Growing up in Delhi, she was abused by her stepfather. "I just survived moment by moment," she says.

She eventually moved in with her dad, but the experiences of her past haunted her. "PTSD hits you much later," she says. As a teenager, she recalls, "I felt like I was in a thousand pieces." Instead of heading to college, she escaped to an ashram, living on the banks of the Ganges and reading scriptures.

The ashram people "helped put me together," she says. She went on to study in England. Her degree in economics landed her a job in Silicon Valley in 1995, working for a startup that hoped to develop a 3-D Web browser. She was going "to help them do an IPO and make a gazillion dollars."

After nine months, she had another "aha": "I wanted to do something more fulfilling."

The Internet wasn't a big thing yet so she turned to the Yellow Pages for guidance. She looked for social service organizations with the word "international" in their name — international development work was what she wanted to do. She wrote and mailed letters to the two groups she found. Child Family Health Internationaloffered her a job setting up clinics in low-income countries. She traveled to Ecuador, Mexico, South Africa ... and around the year 2000, back to her homeland. There she had her third "aha."

Her father went with her to a village in the Himalayas. Women came out to talk. One asked her father how many children he had.

"This is it, my only child," he said.

The woman said, "But how many sons?"

He repeated: "This is it."

The village women started weeping and beating their chests and pleading to God: "Why have you cursed this man?" Some told him it wasn't too late, he could still have a son: "Don't give up!"

He laughed and said of Safeena: "This is my son, my daughter, my life."

But she wasn't laughing. "I felt like I had been stabbed in the chest," she tells Goats and Soda. "To stand there and be invisible, to mean nothing."

She could walk out of that village and back to her life in the U.S. But she wondered: "What about the girls in these villages, made to feel worthless, a burden from the day they were born?"

That's when she decided to change her career once again, from international health care to girls' education.

Husain moved back to India and in 2007 started her own nonprofit: Educate Girls.

The mentors from Educate Girls recruit girl students in Indian villages — and teach them as well.
/ Courtesy of Skoll Foundation/Gabriel Diamond
Courtesy of Skoll Foundation/Gabriel Diamond
The mentors from Educate Girls recruit girl students in Indian villages — and teach them as well.

In India, she says, there's a saying: "A goat is an asset, a girl is a liability." Parents don't want to invest in a daughter's education: "Why should we send her to school? She'll go to her husband's house to live. What is the point of her learning?"

She knew what she had to do: Fight the mindset.

Educate Girls assembled teams of young women and trained them to be mentors. Husain would target a village and send mentors "to find every single girl out of school." The mentors would meet with villagers to convince them it pays to educate a girl: "She can raise children better, read doctor's prescriptions and bus numbers, sell goods in the market and get the right amount of money."

That wasn't enough to persuade everyone. Husain remembers a man in his 20s who said school would encourage girls to "wear short skirts, answer back and have love marriages."

Husain asked the village headmaster: "Did your daughter have a love marriage?" He said, "We arranged the marriage."

"Do you teach them short skirts in school?" Husain asked.

Of course not, he said. The girls learn to read and write. Attitudes toward marriage and garb are shaped at home, not in school, Husain told the dissenter.

Her arguments have changed lots of minds. Over the past seven years, she says, Educate Girls has brought 80,000 girls into schools. Its mentors visit schools regularly to teach and to check on the newly enrolled girls.

I asked Husain if her "aha moments" led her to develop a philosophy to pass on to the next generation of girls. Not really, she says. "Things just happen."

Besides, the village girls don't need any extra push. "They don't want to graze cattle or look after siblings," Husain says. "They all want to do something for themselves."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.