On the Path to Enroll 1 Million Children in School: My Encounter with Women Social Entrepreneurs

Deepika Thakur, AIF Clinton Fellow 2017-18

On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows*

“Namaste! Mein Indus Action ki EWS helpline se baat kar rahi hoon.” / “Hello! I am calling from Indus Action’s EWS (Economically Weaker Section) helpline.”

This is how a Shiksha Sahyogi (community-based women entrepreneur) introduces herself when calling up parents to find out whether their children are eligible to apply under the Section 12 (1)(c) of the Right to Education Act. What does this mean? The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), enacted by the Government of India in 2009, mandates that ‘every child of the age of six to fourteen years shall have a right to free and compulsory education in a neighborhood school till completion of elementary education’. One of the crucial features of the Act is Section 12(1)(c). This section is a powerful tool to ensure that children belonging to socially and economically disadvantaged communities get an opportunity to study in a private school, thus ensuring inclusion. Section 12 (1)(c) mandates a minimum of 25% free seats for children belonging to economically weaker sections (EWS) and disadvantaged groups (DG) in private schools.

My host organization, Indus Action, is currently working to ensure efficient implementation of Section 12 (1)(c). This involves intense awareness generation especially at the community level, among the parents of children belonging to the disadvantaged and weaker groups. This outreach is largely done through community calling banks and missed call helpline services. Our goals are big: Indus Action, through its helpline team, is striving to ensure access to information, with the aspiration ‘to enroll 1 million underprivileged students in high-quality private schools by 2020’. The helpline team is the backbone of this mission. Here women entrepreneurs play a crucial role.

The role of Shiksha Sahyogis in reaching the overall goal to enroll children in school. (Photo: Indus Action)

The community calling banks are led by Shiksha Sahyogis, the women entrepreneurs, from the community who are trained by Indus Action to constitute a task force to efficiently share the necessary information with the families who have children in the age group of 3-6 years, and to guide and support them through the application process. The Shiksha Sahyogis identified by Indus Action from resource-poor communities not just manage the calling banks during the campaign, but also run the help desks during the application cycle.

Shiksha Sahyogis with the cheques towards their monthly stipend. (Photo: Indus Action)

Moreover, the organization is preparing to expand its School Readiness Program (SRP), to help bridge the learning gap a child from disadvantaged family experiences in private schools, by training the mother to prepare the child with basic literacy, numeracy, socio-developmental skills through school readiness kit. And the Shiksha Sahyogis would be the main actors in marketing, selling and imparting training to the mothers, thus embarking on their entrepreneurial journey, and generating income for themselves.

The spirit behind identifying women from the community for this role is to pave their way towards financial and social empowerment. The Shiksha Sahyogis are to take over the ownership of running the calling banks sustainably without Indus Action and are the future leaders who will advocate for the changes in their community and society which they aspire for. ‘Involvement of marginalised groups, be they women, ethnic-minority groups (or both), are associated with greater levels of change’, writes Dr. Humbert (2012) in her working paper on ‘Women as Social Entrepreneurs’.

Those women who have some basic formal education (minimum up to 8th standard for SRP facilitators), were self-motivated, willing to take up the opportunity to earn money to improve their financial opportunity, committed to make 80-120 calls 3 hours/6 days/month and wanted to do something for themselves, were selected for the role. They had to undergo intense training on the RTE and the 12 (1) (c) provision, communication skills, and usage of the application to record the data. Those women who did not own a smart-phone were given one by the organization on an EMI. The Shiksha Sahyogis get a monthly stipend of INR 1500 per month, and this amount will increase when they help families in filling online applications after the commencement of the application process.

Photo clicked by me during one of the training sessions for Shiksha Sahyogis in Delhi. (Photo: Deepika Thakur)

There are around 150 Shiksha Sahyogis involved in the campaign in areas of Badarpur, Garhi, Kardampuri, Kirari, Kondli, Mukundpur, Naraina, Nawada, Sarai Kale Khan, Shastri Park, Uttam Nagar, Vasant Vihar, and Vikaspuri in Delhi.

With a lot of discussion on social entrepreneurs, women social entrepreneurs are still not in focus. Gender impacts the traits generally associated with entrepreneurs such as ‘drive, ambition, leadership’ etc. Women entrepreneurs are more often than not motivated by their own personal history to become entrepreneurs. The attainment of their social objectives, to be able to make a difference is crucial for them to take up this role along with independence and income security (Humbert, 2012).

During my visit to the Delhi office of Indus Action, I got an opportunity to visit one of the community calling banks. The Shiksha Sahyogis are ideally supposed to make about 80 calls per day out of which at least 40-45 should be successful. The feedback captured by them on the app after every call is the source of data for Indus Action’s back-end team which can be used for further advocacy with the relevant stakeholders. As I entered the room, I saw about 12 women holding their smart-phones and sheet of papers with lots of numbers on them. I could notice that they had scribbled something on the sheets next to the numbers. These sheets had the mobile numbers to which calls were to be made by the Shiksha Sahyogis and the scribbling was their way of recording which calls went through and which did not. This information is then later updated on the app which they are trained to use. I was supposed to shadow them while they worked.

A snapshot of one of the pages of the app. On this page the Shiksha Sahyogi selects her area of operation. (Photo: Indus Action)

Here I met Krishna-ji, one of the inspirational Shiksha Sahyogi, who had been a housewife for 35 years. Now her children were working and she had a grand-daughter who was now 4 years old. She shared that as her grand-daughter is growing up and learning English words, she fears that one day the little girl will come to her and say ‘dadi, aapko kuch ni pata hai’ (grandmother, you don’t know anything), like her children sometimes tell her. She decided to become a Shiksha Sahyogi to help others but also to help herself.

Krishna-ji described that when she first started to make calls, she was nervous and unsure of herself. She even skipped the first day of training, because she was not sure whether she was good enough. But as she completed her training she became more confident. Now, she beamed as she spoke that she competently handles even those calls where people become aggressive. She says, this is necessary as she is helping people through her work, so she needs to be calm and persistent. As I was given the task of making calls to better understand the work Shiksha Sahyogis did, I was anxious and hesitant about making mistakes. This is when she asked me not to be nervous and said that I’ll learn better after I’ve made more calls, while teaching me how to record the call feedback on the mobile app. Krishna-ji today, is a proud woman with confidence, self-identity and independence.

As I said my goodbyes to the Shiksha Sahyogis that day, I hoped to take from Krishna-ji, some of her courage to be vulnerable and proud of one’s own achievements.


Government of India. Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE). 26th Aug. 2009. Retrieved from https://archive.india.gov.in/citizen/education.php?id=38 on 1st January, 2018.

Humbert, D. L. (2012, February). ‘Women as Social Entrepreneurs’. Retrieved from https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/tsrc/documents/tsrc/working-papers/working-paper-72.pdf on 1st January, 2018.

About the Author:

Deepika, born and brought up in New Delhi, graduated from University of Delhi and then pursued M.A. in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai. After the completion of her post-graduation, she worked in the development sector, which has helped her gain an understanding of various dimensions of her interest areas which are mainly health, disability, advocacy, and women’s rights. Before becoming an AIF Clinton Fellow, she was associated with a start-up working to provide accessible travel solutions to persons with disabilities, where some of her responsibilities included exploring and pursuing advocacy and collaboration opportunities with government and non-government agencies, curation of international and national alliances and media interfacing and communications. She was also a participant at the Summer School for Future International Development Leaders 2017, a program organized by the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Udaipur and Duke University. Deepika believes that her education in social work has guided her to understand that service to others is not just charity. She believes service is about by pushing forward the agenda for inclusion and rights of people. Her professional experience has further strengthened this philosophy. Her motivation is the hope and belief that we can bring about changes irrespective of how huge or small they are.

*A previous version of this article was originally published on 02/19/2018 at American India Foundation.

AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector.