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Building a Generation of Girl Heroes Across India

When Dhiren Pratap Singh laid the foundation of Milaan, Be The Change, he was in just in college, wondering what he could do for a country that still needed a lot to change.

After six weeks of volunteering with a non-profit to teach poor children, he realized that the task would not be as easy as he’d imagined.

“I just wanted to teach them the alphabets in English, how to count to a 100 and one rhyme. At the end of six weeks, I realized that the challenges were bigger than I thought,” he said.

When he returned to college, he started a conversation with his friends about doing something for children like these. They came up with the name Milaan (a combination of “Milan” which means union and “Elaan” meaning declaration) and began their journey.

From a classroom in Milaan’s school

They started off running a learning centre next to a primary school in Sitapur. They provided supplies and after-school learning facilities for the children. The next year, the community asked them to build a school.

“How dire must their situation have been to trust a couple of 19-year-olds to build a school?” he wondered. “We didn’t have the kind of money we needed to build such a large institution. There were no big corporates or philanthropists who supported us. We raised all our money from individuals who just believed in us to do something. We don’t know how it happened, but we didn’t stop building the school from 2011 to 2016.”

Till date, Milaan identifies themselves as a people driven organization that has invested deeply in their relationships with the community.

As their journey continued, the team began to see that across caste, religion or class, the most vulnerable group remained the same — adolescent girls.

So they started particularly working with adolescent girls in their schools and ran after-school centres to encourage dropout girls to return to school. They travelled around the country for a year, talking to poor families with young girls. The questions that they encountered led them to understand the problem as follows:

“We realized they don’t have a reference point. Our examples of women who succeeded like Kiran Bedi or Sania Mirza were simply not relatable for these families. They wanted stories they could relate to. We needed to create and spread positive stories at a community level. We needed them to think that if the girl across the street with the same resources and from the same background could do it, then so can my daughter.”

This was the start of Milaan’s GirlIcon fellowship, a groundbreaking movement of faith in voices that were overlooked till then.

Rajni is a Girl Icon who stopped 6 child marriages in her village, inlcuding her own

“India has a history of women’s movement. But we have not invested in the voices of adolescent girls,” said Dhiren. “They need to be counted. We wanted to change the outlook from seeing them as the most vulnerable to the most powerful voices.”

The team wanted to know what the needs and aspirations of these adolescent girls from poor communities were. They wanted to create a safe space where these girls felt empowered to raise their voices. But they knew that this would not be easy.

“Everytime someone raises their voice, there is a pushback,” said Dhiren.

They knew that these girls would need a support system within their communities to give them the courage to keep the fight going.

The GirlIcon fellowship was formed keeping these two needs in mind. Milaan identifies girls who have the courage to challenge grassroot problems like child marriage, the lack of education or sanitation facilities. They train these girls to go back to their communities and form a peer group of 20 other girls. With the guidance of Milaan over a period of two years, these groups are motivated to implement actions for problems they identify within their communities.

They provide a five-year mentorship after the first two years during which each GirlIcon has an individual mentor. They help these girls map out individual development plans for themselves during periods where they will have to make some of the most important decisions of their lives.

Akshara is a Girl Icon who refused to let the norms in her village stop her from pursuing her passion to run

“Akshara is an athlete who was only allowed to run in the mornings and in a salwar,” said Dhiren. “She went to the DM in her village who told her that he couldn’t provide a space to run for one girl. He asked her to bring 50 girls along if she wanted a space. He didn’t think she would ever do it. But Akshara got together a group of 50 girls. When she went back to the DM he was shocked. He not only gave her a space to run but also provided security so that the girls would not be disturbed or bothered while they ran!”

The girls learn from each other’s diversity and build their confidence. The fellowship gives them a sense of identity and ownership that they did not have till then.

“We are looking at building a movement of girl heroes across the country — 1 girl leader in every block in the country connected to two networks,” said Dhiren. “The GirlIcon community network will have one local NGO in every district and the Girlicon support network will be an online community of women who would like to interact with these girls and mentor them.”

Here’s a video of two Girl Icons who are creating ripples of change in their villages.

Milaan has raised 114 girl icons in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka till date. Click here to become a part of building this community of girl heroes across India by supporting a GirlIcon today.



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Soumya John

Essays on love, loss, healing, mental health and identity. Read more on my IG: