These Bengaluru teens are empowering underprivileg...

These Bengaluru teens are empowering underprivileged girls through education

"Armed with the passion to help underprivileged girls in India, Bengaluru-based 18-year-olds Disha Panda and Haneen Farid started Project Arambha in June 2020."

“If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”African proverb

Education is an indispensable pillar of a society, which is essential for its growth and progress. But not everyone is fortunate enough to reap the rewards of education because of socioeconomic barriers. It is, therefore, the biggest gift one can give to others. Armed with the passion to help underprivileged girls in India, Bengaluru-based 18-year-olds Disha Panda and Haneen Farid came up with a vision to protect the futures of young girls by raising funds for their education.

Right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Farid and Panda started an initiative called Project Arambha to support the college education of underprivileged girls. ‘Arambha’, which means ‘beginning’ in Sanskrit, reflects the philosophy behind Farid and Panda’s initiative to empower girls through education and enable them to start a new life beyond gender discrimination and prejudices.

The project is in collaboration with a UN-accredited NGO called 1M1B (1 Million for 1 Billion). It has also been selected to participate in the 1M1B Activate Impact Summit 2021 at the United Nations Headquarters, New York in December 2021.

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, the young guns shed light on their work, the numerous challenges they had to battle in their pursuit, and what keeps them motivated on their chosen path.

Tell us how you started Project Arambha and what was the inspiration behind it?

We were sitting in a gloomy classroom in Delhi Public School Bangalore North at the end of the corridor, absolutely blown away by the presentation that the 1M1B team had given that day. We also wanted to do something significant to help the vulnerable, and we signed up for the programme instantly. We joined the 1M1B Future Leaders Program in March 2020 and launched Project Arambha in June last year.

Disha Panda: We were both passionate about gender equality for different reasons. I come from a family where education is given the utmost priority. I have seen the difference education has made in one’s life. To see other girls being deprived of this basic right was difficult for me to digest. That’s why we decided to take on gender equality in higher education.

Haneen Farid: I was shunned by my family and relatives due to my interest in politics and bold opinions. I have also been told that because I am a girl, I cannot succeed in politics. That’s when I thought that girls in similar situations need to be encouraged to become whoever they wanted to become.

What challenges did you face during the inception of Project Arambha and how did you overcome them to get here?

Disha Panda: One of the biggest challenges we faced was our pivots. Initially, we wanted to work with women in corporate leadership. We conducted over 100 interviews and kept that going for about two months, only to realise that we were running in circles. So, we had to let that go. We started working on something else and the cycle kept repeating itself until we started Project Arambha in June last year.

Haneen Farid: We had zero technical skills. In fact, our first go/no-go is something we still laugh about. A go/no-go is a pitch we submit to 1M1B, which decides whether or not our project can be presented at the 1M1B Activate Impact Summit 2021 at the UN Headquarters, New York. We were quite confident that day and logged into the session. Disha texted me, “Haneen, I have a good feeling about this.” And, when we were done, the first reaction we got was, “Girls, that was pathetic!” I think we have come a long way from there because we started to learn how to use PowerPoint. Eventually, we did make it to the 1M1B summit scheduled later this year.

You are fuelling the dreams and aspirations of many girls through a career programme. Can you shed light on the programme and what it entails? 

Last year, we launched a career programme to teach underprivileged girls basic job skills such as resume-writing, LinkedIn profile-building, communication skills, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, and job interviews among others. We guide our girls through the job application process to help them secure a good job after their education by equipping them with the required knowledge and skills. We have had help from some of India’s top career coaches, such as Debeshi Chakraborty and Parul Siddiqui. So far, we have conducted about 20 sessions for more than 60 girls.

How do you address the challenges around girls’ education in India?

It all comes down to acceptance. When we accept that girls need to be educated because they are equal to boys, that’s when half the war is won. At times, it’s hard to procure the funding. We, ourselves, have a tough time raising funds for the girls’ fees. But there are some generous donors and corporates who come to help in these dire situations.

Creating an initiative like this is no easy feat, especially when it comes to logistics. How do you stay motivated? 

Haneen Farid: To be honest, it is a difficult task throughout, and we do not have the time to get overwhelmed by all the work. So, whenever we feel a little too tired, we just talk to each other over a call or binge-watch Netflix. Disha is an artist and she likes to paint. She uses her creativity to escape some of the stress. I am learning music, so I like to sing some Bollywood classics every now and then to stay inspired.

Do you have a message for girls, who dream of a successful career?

Dream big. There will be thousands of people who are going to tell you that you can’t do something because you are “not capable” or your dreams are “impossible.” But, you are the only one who can choose to ignore them and keep going. And it’s essential to stay motivated throughout, have a goal, and keep working towards that. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you can make it big.

What is your advice to those who want to make a difference?

One piece of advice is to know what you are getting into. Have a mentor, talk to at least 100 people in the field that you want to work in, and be ready to make tweaks to your initiative. We are here because of our mentors at 1M1B, who guided us at every step. Speaking to people gave us an idea of how things were like for those we wanted to help. And we probably pivoted our project more than five times before we reached girl child education. See what works best for you, and be prepared for anything!

  • Haneen Farid is the co-founder of Project Arambha, an advocate for gender equality, and a laureate of the Hindustan Times 30 Under 30 Awards. She is a political enthusiast, who leaves no opportunity to debate current affairs. Additionally, she works as a freelance journalist, focussing on politics and social issues in South Asia.
  • Disha Panda is the co-founder of Project Arambha, an advocate for girl child education, and a laureate of the Hindustan Times 30 Under 30 Awards. She is an aspiring social entrepreneur, who takes a keen interest in global economies and financial markets. Furthermore, she is a travel buff, who lives to see the northern lights someday.

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