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Nurturing Through Education

Project Nanhi Kali is helping girls across 10 states in India get quality education.

Education of women is acknowledged as an effective mechanism to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. In India, where approximately 64 percent of girls drop out of school before they complete the secondary level, the education of millions of girls is considered a daunting task. So, in 1996, Anand Mahindra, chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., began Project Nanhi Kali at the K.C. Mahindra Education Trust, with the aim of providing primary education to underprivileged girls in India. He believes that educated women contribute to the economy and help in rooting out regressive social practices like the dowry system and child marriage.

By 2004, 3,500 girls were educated under the project, in partnership with 20 small nongovernmental organizations in Mumbai and New Delhi. Sheetal Mehta, executive director of the K.C. Mahindra Education Trust, decided to build on that success. In 2005, she contacted the Hyderabad-based Naandi Foundation to discuss joining forces to provide daily educational support to underprivileged girls. Mehta says Manoj Kumar, chief executive officer of the foundation, envisioned no limits in scaling the project, “to reach 100,000 immediately, and hopefully, empower one million girls in the future with academic and material support.” Since 2005, Project Nanhi Kali is jointly managed by the K.C. Mahindra Education Trust and Naandi Foundation.

One decade later, the project received the 2015 Times of India Social Impact Award for supporting the education of a quarter million underprivileged girls in 10 states in India. Currently, the project supports over 120,000 girls in urban, remote rural and tribal parts of India. Project Nanhi Kali is funded by 8,000 individual donors and 400 global corporate supporters, including Google Inc., Johnson & Johnson Ltd., Teradata, AT&T Inc., Nestlé, Mahindra Group, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd., Titan Company Limited and Tata AIG General Insurance Company Ltd.

Changing community mindsets
Kumar defines the project’s inclusive process of enrolling every girl in a village or hamlet as “not just putting a girl in school and educating her. It is 6 to 12 months of fighting to legitimize girls attending school and to change the community mindset that a girl has no other purpose than fetching water or to be married off.”

Often, the reason for a girl’s absence is she is going to get married. Early counseling with her parents and village elders help in preventing such cases. With the project’s persistent focus on ensuring girls learn, daily attendance at the Nanhi Kali academic support classes is mandatory, and tracking their attendance is a priority. Ninety percent of the girls who join the project complete class 10. “When illiterate parents realize that their girls are learning, they develop dreams and aspirations for their daughters to become engineers, scientists or doctors,” says Mehta.


Parents to 120,000 girls
In 2015-16, a third party evaluation team spent six months visiting 41 Academic Support Centres of Project Nanhi Kali across seven locations and declared it “unique among NGOs and nonprofits for providing daily intervention of one to two hours to every girl they serve.”

At these centers, classes are conducted before or after school hours. Girls are taught concepts in mathematics, science and language to bridge the gaps in learning levels, which enable them to achieve grade-specific competency levels. Carefully selected from within the community, and trained in Project Nanhi Kali’s pedagogy of cooperative and reflective learning, the mentors at these centers are the local resource and friends to each of their 30 to 40 students.

The mission to educate underprivileged girls involves taking on a parental role by providing “dignity kits with a school bag, uniform, shoes, socks, stationery and even undergarments and personal hygiene materials to every Nanhi Kali,” says Mehta.


One million girls’ education goal
With no endowment and a “shoestring budget,” Kumar says the project, “can’t afford billboards. [We] depend upon our loyal donors for support. We recently established a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization in the U.S., the Mahindra Foundation, to generate awareness and raise funds toward the cause of female literacy.” Donors receive a photograph, profile and three progress reports yearly for the child they sponsor. 

The annual sponsorship costs $50 (Rs. 3,000 approximately) for primary and $72 (Rs. 5,000 approximately) for secondary education. Ninety percent of the cost is spent directly on the project, while seven percent covers administration and fundraising. The program reserves three percent as a cushion for donors who do not renew. “We will never drop a girl—that is our commitment,” says Mehta.

Project Nanhi Kali continues to “reach for the stars” as they update their goals to support a million girls, roll out digital education through tablet-based learning and establish N-Star Centres for adolescent girls who complete class 10.


Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.


A Story  of Inspiration

Being born as a girl into poverty is sometimes like a double-edged sword. Almost every Nanhi Kali has an endearing and heartwarming story to share. Here’s one.

Hajiya Begum lost her father when she was very young, and her mother deserted her for being a girl. It was left to her grandmother, Karima, who worked as a maid in a Hyderabad suburb, to raise her.

Hajiya was sent to a free government school in Shaikpet. With a meager earning of Rs. 2,000 ($30 approximately) per month, Hajiya’s grandmother did not even have the money to buy her a school bag, so she stitched one together using an old cement sack and cotton rags. In 2006, everything changed. Hajiya, then in class 4, became a Nanhi Kali.

Hajiya continued her education and went on to score 93 percent in her class 10 exams, for which her photograph appeared in local newspapers. In the 2014 Board of Intermediate Exams, equivalent of class 12, she scored 944 out of 1,000 marks. Her dreams, too, have grown: she now wants to work in a company like Microsoft.