Dr Urvashi Sahni

Study Hall Educational Foundation

Dr Urvashi Sahni

Dr Urvashi Sahni founded Study Hall school in 1986, which became part of Study Hall Educational Foundation (SHEF) in 1994. SHEF’s mission is to provide underprivileged girls in India with a quality education.

They use a feminist pedagogy to empower girls to believe they can achieve anything. To date, SHEF’s initiatives have impacted hundreds of thousands of girls, through in-school teaching, teacher training, workshops, and educational videos. Now, SHEF is influencing education policy in the private and public sector to intervene in the national curriculum.

Read their impact stories here.

Ogunte: What kind of a leader are you, Urvashi?

Dr Urvashi Sahni: Collaborative, consultative, hands-on, but most importantly, nurturing. I believe that you have to nurture people into the standards you expect. I don’t expect people to arrive with all the skills they will need. That’s the job of a leader.

I used to lead from the front more, but now I have learned to walk alongside my team and learn from them, as well as teach them everything I know. It is important to give your team the space to grow, experiment and fall. I provide the safety net.

It is key to develop the vision along with the people you are leading, so that it’s a shared vision. I learned very early that telling people what to do doesn’t work.

The Dirty Dozen!

I don’t like saying this, but most of these are feminine traits. SHEF is largely a female-led organisation, which defines its leadership model. My team is made up of 12 women (I call them ‘The Dirty Dozen’!). We have three men too, but they possess many feminine leadership traits. I say that in a nice way!

Ogunte: In your view, what are the most serious problems mankind is facing right now?

Urvashi: My God, there are a lot of problems! Inequality is a very major problem – the poor distribution of wealth, where we have so much wealth and yet so much poverty. There is something so wrong with that.

In my view and where I live, gender discrimination is a huge problem. The world is just unsafe for women: at home, on the streets, everywhere. There is still a huge amount of violence against women, and valuing women primarily for their reproductive, sexual and domestic labour – can you imagine, in the 21st century?

Girls and women are largely unwanted, unsafe, unequal. This is 50% of the world’s population we’re talking about, so we should really see it as the number one problem.

Another massive problem is consumerism. Rich nations have set up a model of wasteful extravagance and hailed it as the best standard. The planet can’t sustain it!

Synthesis Antithesis Balance

I think the developing world might have provided a more frugal model of development, which they haven’t been allowed to do because of the colonisation of minds and nations. The North maintains a psychological economic supremacy over the South from centuries of exploitation.

But I don’t want to sound like a prophet of doom! I am an eternal optimist at heart.

Ogunte: So, there is hope?

Urvashi: I really believe that when there are problems, there are people who rise to the fore. I have great faith in the next generation, the millennials. While they’re driving us all bats, the younger generation is very idealistic, and I have faith in that.

And there is progress to be seen– my grandmother was married at 13, my mother at 15, I was engaged at 17, my daughter married at 32, and I have one daughter who is still not married at 40. I consider that huge progress!

At a macro level, when things swing so far to the antithesis, there will be a synthesis, and balance.

You can only do what you can do, but it’s very important to do it now. It’s true, the world may end, and you are going to die, no matter what you do. That doesn’t mean that you stop living, that doesn’t mean that you stop making the effort that you need to make.

Ogunte: Why did you choose to work on transforming girls’ education?

Urvashi: My family was not rich, but they were middle class and struggling to make a living. I grew up in a very patriarchal structure. My brothers would go out and play cricket; I would stay home and iron the clothes. They went ahead to get commerce degrees and engineering degrees; I was married off.

My cousin was a victim of dowry violence in 1982. That was when I started my first organisation, a women’s organisation. It was the first in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, and one of the first in the state.

I continued to study, and realised that education was my saviour – it opened all the doors to me because I pursued it.

I believe a girl’s education is her right, and also understand that a regular technical education - in Maths, Science, English, Hindi - isn’t going to cut it. Girls must learn that they are equal persons and that they have a right to a life of their own choosing. Just like you learn anything else, just as you learn that the sun sets in the West and rises in the East, and that the Earth rotates, you need to learn that you can do it and that you deserve every opportunity that anyone else gets. Girls need this and all oppressed people need this.

That’s why I do the work that I do.

Study Hall Education Foundation -Students

Boys need to develop a feminist conscience too

The consequences of patriarchal structures and gender discrimination are lethal. Girls are dying. They are dying because of child marriage, they are dying because of violence and torment on the streets. When are we going to sit up?

We don’t even know how big of a problem it is. We only see the tip of the iceberg. Clearly, we need to do something to change patriarchal mindsets, and where better to start than in education? We’ve started working with boys, too – I think boys need to develop a feminist conscience too, and to take a different view of masculinity.

Ogunte: How have the challenges facing Study Hall Educational Foundation changed since its inception?

Urvashi: When you’re setting a venture up, the challenges are trying to get everything right. Putting the nuts and bolts together, developing your pedagogy, developing your product and marketing it, in business terms. Every little growth is a win, and that inspires you.

Now, as you grow bigger, of course, you grow more ambitious. Scale becomes the biggest challenge: How do you scale something fairly complex that has grown organically until now, based on where the needs were? How do you scale it into areas where you don’t have the control, where other people have the control, and maintain your quality? And when you are selling something as complicated as ‘Down with the Patriarchy’, how are you getting a buy-in? Especially in patriarchal societies where it’s part of our DNA, both men and women.

The challenge now is: how do you get more and more people to listen? How do we get a larger and larger community of stakeholders to buy into what we’re doing?

Ogunte: How do you stay motivated when trying to fight a force like the patriarchy?

Urvashi: When you’re tackling large social and governmental structures, of course it’s very challenging. But I think you change the world one life at a time, and those lives then go on to change more lives. And I go wherever I find people are listening. Often that channels me into other places where there are believers.

For four or five years now, we have been spreading our wings and trying to influence the government sector, and we’ve had some encouraging successes.

I do a lot of public speaking, trying to change the tone of the conversation. The good news is, I’ve seen in the last five years, people listen! Do they do it, or not? That’s another matter. But they listen!

I don’t know if you know, but I just got the Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Schwab Foundation [in 2017]. I was very surprised. I tell you, I was shocked: Why does anybody care about gender? We are very open about our political stance, and there were bigger organisations in the running, but the jury really valued the work of SHEF and thought it had a deep impact.

That’s what thrilled me the most, I thought: Thank God, people are actually listening!

I’m very hopeful in general. It’s about taking small steps – and it will not happen if you don’t do it. So, you have to do it. And hope that it will grow and grow and grow.

Ogunte: How are you building your professional network?

Urvashi: I think about networks as clusters of people with a shared interest or goal. This is how movements work, as you gather together more and more drivers of change.

At SHEF, we are consciously going about building clusters of support. These come from different areas as we expand. We are in the process of founding a South Asian hub of champions of girls’ education.

Also, we grow our reach through our students. Our students are being grown into teachers and leaders, who will drive forward our vision and nurture the next generation of changemakers.

It’s not just talk, it’s not just an ideology that we’re selling. It’s a dynamic, organic movement towards the goal of gender equality that impacts the lives of girls and women everywhere. We have so many examples of lives changed – stories help when getting others to join our community.

Ogunte: Which social entrepreneurs inspire you?

Urvashi: There are really so many. I have worked with amazing teachers and professors, mentors of mine, but I find my students most inspiring of all. They might not have started enterprises yet, but the kind of change they have made in their own lives inspires me. They act on their own lives and then move into the social sphere because they immediately understand the much larger, structural problem. Because they have managed to help themselves, they go out and help very actively in the community. I find them most inspiring.

I understand entrepreneurship more broadly: I think you are an entrepreneur when you are able to think originally and initiate change. Whether it’s at a personal or a societal level, it’s an entrepreneurial way of living, of thinking – an entrepreneurial habit of mind.

Interview produced by Naomi Pyburn for Ogunte.
Learn from other ImpactWomen interviews here.

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