Business

Teaching slum girls and female refugees to believe in themselves

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Media captionEducation is changing the lives of young girls and female refugees in India and Kenya

Two-thirds of the world's illiterate population is female.

And the 17 million girls who are not in education, according to Unesco, are more likely to get pregnant at an early age.

But some women in India and Kenya who were given educational opportunities are setting up their own companies, teaching others and showing that change is possible.

In India, Matthew Wheeler and Priti Gupta meet one woman whose teaching programme is boosting the confidence of young girls in New Delhi, while in Nairobi, Kenya, Zoe Flood meets a tailoring and tie-dye collective giving independence to female members, traumatised by violence.


Protsahan, New Delhi

Image copyright Matthew Wheeler
Image caption Protsahan helps young girls to learn creative skills

The Vikas Nagar slum area, 20km west of New Delhi city centre, is a maze of narrow streets between two and three-storey concrete buildings.

There's brief shade beneath clothes drying on balconies, but in the areas of open land, strewn with litter, respite from the sun can only be found in makeshift dwellings of rag and tarpaulin.

These shacks, rising from the rubbish and buzzing with flies, are places people like 13-year-old Sonam Kumari call home. Sonam's mother, Sangeeta, earns what she can from recycling plastic bottles, and wants her daughter to have a better life.

Sonam is lucky though. Unlike her mother, she is getting an education, thanks to social entrepreneur Sonal Kapoor.

Ms Kapoor is the founder of Protsahan India Foundation, a non-profit organisation that provides education and inspiration for girls from the slums, and which runs a small creative arts school just a five-minute walk from Sonam's shack.

"Protsahan means encouragement," Ms Kapoor explains. "We are here to pat the backs of these girls and say, 'We believe in you. We are giving you the space, the understanding, for you to change things in your life.'"

Her mission began in 2010 when she had a chance meeting with a pregnant woman in the slums. The woman already had six daughters and was sending the eldest, a seven-year-old, to a brothel to earn money for the family.

"I asked her, 'What will you do with the seventh child?'" she recalls. "She tells me, 'If it's a boy I am going to get him educated. But if it's a girl I'm going to strangle her the moment she is born.'"

Giving back

Ms Kapoor discovered that while boys from the slums were being sent to school to improve their prospects, about 95% of girls here were getting no education at all, and many were suffering sexual abuse. And so Protsahan was born.

The first challenge was to persuade parents that their daughters should have the same opportunities as their sons. "In the beginning we would collect rice and wheat and distribute the food in exchange for their daughters coming to school. After about three years it started to get a tad bit easier to convince the parents."

Image caption The children's mothers believe the school will give their daughters better opportunities at life than they had

Protsahan teaches creative skills, such as photography, film-making and art, as well mathematics and English, and uses educational games to inspire its pupils. It's working for Sonam, whose mind has been opened to a world of possibilities she was never aware of before.

"Initially I didn't believe in myself," Sonam says. "I was very depressed. I am so confident now that if tomorrow my family stops my education I can start giving tuition at home to other girls. So in that way I can continue my studies."

There doesn't appear to be any danger of Sonam's mother stopping her education. "I am very proud of my daughter studying," Sangeeta says. "She should become an independent and successful person."

This is what Sonal Kapoor wants for Sonam too: for Sonam and the rest of her friends at Protsahan to become role models and pass the spark of education and inspiration to other girls from the slums.

"It's imperative for us to do 10,000 things right for one child rather than one thing right for 10,000 children. That one particular leader, that one empowered adolescent girl, has the power to transform her entire community."


Maisha Collective, Nairobi

They've gone through some of the most traumatic challenges to face a person but in Kenya, the Maisha Collective is using education to make a huge difference to the lives of young female refugees.

Image copyright zoe flood
Image caption The collective trains women in a variety of techniques

When Bontu Deksiso Badaso first joined the collective in 2009, she was one of just five members. She had fled to Kenya from Ethiopia aged 19 after her father was apparently targeted for his political views.

Since then, 100 other young refugees, who have travelled from East and the Horn of Africa have joined the collective - which makes tie-and-dye scarves and tailors various items of clothing before selling them on.

Most left their home countries while they were still under the age of 18, arriving in Kenya's capital Nairobi unaccompanied or separated from family.

"These girls come from war-torn countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Sudan and Somalia," explains Hamdi Abdi, Maisha's production co-ordinator. "Their village may have been attacked and their parents were killed." He said that many were taken in by militia men and sexually assaulted.


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The Maisha Collective was set up by Heshima Kenya, a non-profit that works to protect vulnerable refugee children and youth, and help them lead safe and independent lives.

The collective plays a key role in making sure that young women - who have already been trained in tailoring and tie-and-dye skills, and given access to basic education - can transition to economic self-sufficiency.

"The girls are learning how to manage businesses," says Benedict Nganga, acting country director for Heshima Kenya.

"We sell the scarves locally and internationally. From the funds generated, each girl receives a stipend on a monthly basis, which is supposed to support them to meet their basic needs and the needs of their children."

In addition, the collective members are encouraged to put aside a small amount each month, so that they can use the skills gained when they move on after two years.

Image caption The women's designs and materials are being used by American companies

Hamdi Abdi says often the women set up businesses and this means "they feel now they can stand on their own two feet".

"Tomorrow this girl is going to be the voice in the community that empowers other women who are going through so many things," she adds.

Psychosocial support

In 2015, sales of products made by the Maisha Collective reached $150,000 (£100,000), with scarves and clothes either bulk ordered or retailed locally, or internationally through the website Etsy.

Maisha has also partnered with a number of American designers who use its materials in their products.

The collective is currently breaking even, covering the members' stipends and its own expenses. The money made also supports other aspects of Heshima Kenya's work, including providing psychosocial support, and medical care.

The work of the collective also helps some of the members deal with their own trauma.

"When they sit and work, they talk about everything that happened to them," says Ms Abdi.

"It takes a long time for a girl to open up to a counsellor than she does with another girl. She immediately opens up because she feels that this girl went through the same thing."

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