How I started a sex education revolution in India

They said it couldn’t be done.

More like, they refused to speak or think about it at all. It was the invisible Indian elephant in the room that was quietly butchering girls’ and boys’ emotional well-being across the country.

In India, you can’t say “sex.” Moreover, you can’t walk into a school full of impressionable children and say “sex” to the stern principal of the school. And, you definitely cannot propose teaching small children about their private body parts and safety and homosexuality and how actually, menstruation is clean and magical and it may or may not be ok to go into a temple when you’re on your period, it’s up to you to decide.

I realized early on that to propose sex and gender education in a country where the youth are not supposed to decide for themselves, only listen, and a woman attracts a road-full of male attention if she wears a skirt, was going to be an uphill battle. India used to be a safe place for women many thousands of years ago, but 3,000 years of deep patriarchy has made its mark.

This coming school year, 600,000 eleven to fifteen year old kids across every single region of India are going to be learning everything from puberty and menstruation, to consent, gender roles, safe sex, and LGBTQ, through my program Iesha Learning. They are going to role-play saying “yes” and “no” in complex social situations. They are going to learn that the menstrual cycle is actually 4 weeks, not 4 days, and how our bodies are so smart that they follow the rhythm of the moon. That it’s ok to feel sexual attraction. That boys can be kind and sensitive too, and that the heroes of Bollywood movies might actually get arrested if they stalked women like that in real life.

This sort of education, and at this scale, has never happened before in India. In a country where 80% of Indian women do not know why they menstruate (“it just happens”), and 53% of Indian children — more than half the population — has experienced sexual abuse, we have to understand the magnitude of the social taboo on sexuality and gender. To many people, sex , quite simply, only exists at the moment at which it is happening and at no other time. Complete mental repression.

How is it that half a million middle and high schoolers are getting access to information that was withheld from their older siblings, and their parents, and their parents, and their parents? How did I manage to build something that changes kids’ attitudes, making a crack in the vicious cycle of violence and disrespect and gender inequality and that giant, silencing, uncomfortable, weird thing called a “taboo”? As a twenty-something young Indian-American woman with no previous experience or degree in sex education, and with almost no networks or contacts in the country?

Here’s my story of tackling the single most difficult, complex, and important social issue in one of the oldest and most traditional cultures on Earth.

Queen of social enterprise

It was April 13th, 2014. I was on stage at a private dinner event at the Sankalp Forum, the annual gathering of 1,000+ social innovators and investors in Mumbai, India. I was speaking about the success of my program, SEED — Villgro Innovation Foundation’s (India’s largest social enterprise incubator) first structured acceleration program for social entrepreneurs that I had built and run over my previous two and half years in India. Some of my audience members included representatives from the Lemelson Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and ALTIS Business School in Italy, who had supported my program, as well as the dozens of social ventures and mentors who had taken part in the program. It was a defining moment reminding me that I had achieved everything I had dreamed of just a few years before.

In 2011, I had quit my job as a business case writer at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and booked a one-way ticket to India. I had decided I wanted to learn social entrepreneurship in the field, not inside ivory towers.

In the next year, I built SEED at Villgro. When I first started, founder Paul Basil had advised me: “We need a capacity building program. But we have to make it the most effective one in the sector. As compared to the short ‘bootcamp’ style programs that award only one or two lucky ventures, our success metric should be that everyone who graduates from our program actually raises capital.”

This objective ended up being the driving force behind an intensive eight-month program that I developed from scratch. In order for every entrepreneur to be successful, I needed to help every single one of my social ventures fundamentally re-work their product-market fit, business model, and impact strategy — just helping them polish up their pitch decks was not going to cut it for this program.

I set to work. I secured the world’s leading experts on Lean Startup methodology, human-centered design, social innovation, and entrepreneurship — some of our facilitators included a lecturer from Stanford Design School and several former Silicon Valley CEOs who flew to India on their own dime, the lean startup team from Intuit, and the design lead at IDEO. I crafted liaisons with all of the seed-stage social investors who invest in India, including Unitus Seed Fund and Accion Venture Lab. And most importantly, I designed a program that would allow my social entrepreneurs to experiment with the support of trusted mentors — former CEOs themselves — who devoted several hours every month.

I succeeded — after two years, nine out of 12 of my SEED graduates had raised capital and were growing quickly, providing refrigeration for crops, microfinance, career counseling in schools for low-income people, and many other solutions. This was an extremely high success rate, given all of the unique barriers in rural India, including slow distribution systems, cultural barriers, and low ability of customers to pay.

Seeing my success after the first year, the Rockefeller Foundation invested in SEED. Not only was this Rockefeller Foundation’s first investment in Villgro, but it signaled that I had created a program that was uniquely accelerating social innovation in India. At this point, Villgro raised a large grant to scale out all of its programs across India, and even enter Kenya: what’s more, SEED’s methodology was now going to form the basis of all of its incubation programming. My program was about to reach hundred of social innovators across the country, to ultimately affect millions of lives at the base of the pyramid.

At the same time, I had become a regular on the speaking circuit — at 25 years old, I was speaking to hundreds of leaders, including India’s equivalent of Fortune 500 CEOs, USAID director Raj Shah on his visit to India, major TV news channels, and the top business schools across Asia (India, Philippines, Singapore) on how to change the world with social enterprise. One of my friends joking called me the “omniscient overseer of the social enterprise sector” because of how deeply immersed I was.

When I had moved to India in 2011, this was what I had dreamed of. I had wanted to work with social ventures across all sectors, and gain a bird’s eye view of the challenges and impact on the ground. I had built my SEED program with complete dedication and creativity, and I was proud to see how effective and successful it was in helping social entrepreneurs manifest their visions for social change.

But, something was missing. What about my vision? All along, I had wanted to become an expert in social enterprise so that I could be wise, thorough, and skilled when I finally started my own social venture to create gender equality in India. Now that I knew how it was done, it was time for me to go do it myself. Indeed, that’s really why I had so rigorously and methodically sharpened my skills, acumen, and networks in the preceding three years.

I had a chance to lead the scale-out and replication of SEED to hundreds more social innovators, but at this critical juncture, I turned down the opportunity. I followed my heart. Villgro hired a new head of the SEED program, I trained him, and I resigned. It was time for me to create and manifest my own vision.

Ground Zero

Where did I start? It was like pure wilderness. I was in a foreign country, I didn’t have a co-founder or any capital, and didn’t know what my product or service should be. So, I just started.

On the instinct, I started conducting workshops on menstruation at low-income schools in Mumbai through Teach for India. I had an overwhelming response. Teachers were excitedly hanging up my menstrual cycle diagrams in their classrooms, and I was ambushed by kids whenever I visited the schools.

But it wasn’t enough — not in the slightest. The teachers wanted a comprehensive sex education solution, for boys as well as for girls.

Doing it wrong meant risking complete chaos and fall-out in the classroom and with the schools (imagine 11-year-old boys running around the school screaming about sex.) Doing it right meant changing the face of India.

I set to building a fun, interactive, and comprehensive sex and gender education program for India.

Iesha Learning is born (from our magical wombs!)

I hired two other young women to help me. After 4 months of 10 hour days sitting in my living room through the Mumbai monsoon, sipping endless cups of chai and iterating over and over on our content, and then re-working the entire curriculum after every pilot, I had a product. It was India’s first, radically interactive, playful, and comprehensive sexual and gender education curriculum for 6th to 8th grade students, uniquely suited for the Indian context. And I had built it from scratch.

No one was talking about menstruation or sex education at that time in India — now, there is Bollywood movie featuring A-list actors, discussing the lack of sanitary pads in rural India. Upper-middle class adults, who had never received formal education on the subject, believed that it was a non-issue, because what would you even talk about?

Taking on the most taboo subject borne of thousands of years of repression and patriarchy, in a country where it is already notoriously difficult to get things done (one study cites India as the most difficult country in which to do business), and being an American who was learning the tricks and nuances for the first time, one might have wondered why I even undertook this challenge.

Because I had a vision. I knew that my content fundamentally changed the attitudes and behaviors of young teens — I had seen, in front of my eyes, sexually abusive and harassing little boys turn into the most empathetic, respectful, and kind young men. I had seen classrooms transform from a screaming pit of bullying and misbehavior to camaraderie and cooperation. I knew my content would radically change the face of the rape and gender crisis in the country, if only it had the chance to get into classrooms and in front of 11–15 year old boys and girls.

From the very start, I built the program so that any teacher or facilitator could pick it up and run it, and get similar impact results. This took a high degree of nuance and skill — because we could not trust every teacher to do it right, the culture of no-taboos in the classroom, confidentiality, and respect had to be codified into games that students would play throughout the course. The attitude of normalcy around puberty and sex had to be conveyed through our colorful characters and actors in the slides and videos. And most importantly, we had to win the hearts and trust of our students by constantly using examples of movies, TV shows, games, and situations that resonated with them — they had to believe that we were their cool older sibling who was to be listened to and emulated.

It’s hard enough to achieve that when we were physically in the classroom with the students, but even more challenging to codify that entire classroom culture and vibe into a program pack that would be run by other teachers. But we did it.

Soon, we were seeing incredible changes in behavior from students, ranging from boys telling us that they would never harass or force a girl romantically or sexually again, to girls telling us that they were speaking up and participating in class for the first time, because they were not ashamed of their periods.

When I visited one slum school, three months after our program had ended there, a group of 15 teachers stood up and applauded when I entered the room. They said that they could never have believed or imagined the change in behavior of their eighth grade students. Before we ran the course, the students were sexually harassing each other and the female teachers, and there were even instances of physical abuse among the boys. Now, those same students were the golden paragon of behavior for the rest of the school. The teachers asked me how we did it, and they enthusiastically requested to be trained so that they could run the program with the older grade levels!

Seeing low income teachers who were initially shy and intimated by our topics eagerly asking to be trained, demonstrated to me that it is possible to win over hearts and minds, and indeed, to fundamentally change kids’ attitudes when it came to bodies, love, respect, and sex.

How do we scale?

By 2016, Iesha Learning was reaching several schools and organizations, but I needed Iesha’s content to get out there in a big way. I was trying to change the system, and I was not content with just reaching a thousand students. I was trying to change India.

I had determined early on that the best way to scale across India and seed a sexual and gender education revolution would be to leverage existing distribution channels. What were the touch points to reach middle and high school students? I found out that “smart-class” providers like Educomp were feeding thousands of schools with cutting edge K-12 content on “smart-boards” — blackboard-sized touch screens installed in classrooms.

If I could get one of these ed-tech giants to partner with me, I had it made. The revolution would be started. But how?

I met Shantanu Prakash, the founder and CEO of Educomp at an ed-tech conference in London. He enthusiastically agreed to meet me in the lobby of the conference venue after receiving a message from me on the conference app. In the first five minutes of our meeting, I pulled out my computer, and showed him 10 seconds of my content. “Can you pause it for a second?” he asked, in the typical fast-paced manner of an executive. I paused the video. “Who did you have make this content for you? Where did you get these instructional designers?” he asked in awe. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“I made it myself,” I told him. He put me in touch with the CEO of their B2C company FlipLearn — a platform that provides content packs for students to consume at home on their computers.

However, my vision was to create a revolution in schools. This is where integrity to my social impact mission came in — I knew that reaching students individually on their computer screens couldn’t create the deep behavioral impact that could happen in a group environment. So I kept going.

I met Sushma Dureja, the woman in charge of adolescent education at the Ministry of Health in New Delhi — the government official encharged with the national sex education curriculum that will be reaching one million government schools across the 29 Indian states in the next several years. She had a similar reaction. When I left her office that day, she stood up and told me, “You have challenged my notions and preconceptions of what one single individual can do, just out of her own initiative. We don’t have anything like what you have shared with me. We will see how we can integrate this into the national curriculum.”

Eventually though, Tata, India’s most respected, oldest, and largest conglomerate became my best ally. With a number of behemoth corporations under its belt, including Tata Motors that owns international brand Jaguar, Tata also has a large ed-tech company, Tata Class Edge, that reaches more than a thousand schools across India with K-12 content on smartboards.

Now, Iesha Learning’s revolutionary sex and gender education content is going to be available in 1,500 schools through Tata Class Edge in the upcoming school year (starting June 2018.) Tata is going to physically send trainers into every one of the 1,500 schools, to train the teachers on how to run Iesha’s content (white labeled) as part of their life skills curriculum for 6th to 10th grade students.

The program that I invented during that Mumbai monsoon is going to reach 600,000 young minds.

If you can imagine it, you can manifest it

This all just came out of my imagination. From the beginning, I believed in my vision — so much so that I may have seemed idealistic to those around me. I could visually see and feel my content changing the lives of millions of students, because I sensed the deep, heartfelt, and moving gratitude from the students and teachers we were already reaching. I knew I had tapped into a groundswell of energy, if only I could get it started.

And now I have.

Every idea has a time to come to fruition. I believe that a vision comes to you for a reason. One way or another, it has to be let out into the real world. For sex and gender education in India, the time has come.

As compared to the silence I faced in 2014, I now get emails every other week from organizations and individuals who want help building sex education or menstruation education programs.

These half a million students? They are just the beginning of the revolution.

There are 243 million adolescents in India.

There are at least a couple dozen driven Indian women and men committed to this movement.

For an idea whose time has come, it’s only a matter of time.

If you would like more info on how to adopt Iesha Learning’s program for your school, NGO, or company, please e-mail contact@nilimaachwal.com. To learn more about the author, visit www.nilimaachwal.com .