Photo courtesy of University of North Carolina Asheville
By Hadley Montgomery
The Milaan Foundation “is a non-profit organization with the mission to enable, empower, and invest in girls towards being the amplified voices of change,” according to Alyssa Newlon, the co-founder of the Milaan Foudation, who spoke on The Girl Icon Fellowship within the foundation on October 3 in the Mary Sue Cushman Room. The fellowship began in 2015 to “recognize outstanding change-makers who seek to make a difference in their communities” in India.
Young women in India face many adversities like child marriage, a lack of education, and menstrual hygiene. According to Newlon, “63 percent of girls in surrounding areas would drop out after eighth grade.” After the eighth grade, the future of boys in the community considered is more important. Although child marriage is illegal in India, many girls are married against their will. Because of these factors, the Milaan Foundation partnered with the government of India and over 100 Non-Governmental Organizations to, in Newlon’s words, “encourage positive stories of the girls who are doing something.”
In the first year of the program, over 2,000 girls between the ages of 12 and 18 applied, and ten became Girl Icons. Once chosen, the girls receive a $400 learning grant and a stipend of $100 to create two social action projects in their community. They start peer groups of 15-20 girls in their community, meeting throughout the year with a basic curriculum of decision-making, finances, etc. One of the first Girl Icons from Sitapur is Raini. She is in the lowest caste and bikes 60 kilometers per day into town. At age 14, she broke up her own child marriage and Newlon reports that Raini is now addressing the fact that according to Newlon, “it is estimated that for every 100 girls that enroll in school in rural India, 40 will reach fourth grade, 18 will reach eighth grade, 9 will reach tenth grade, and only 1 will make it to the twelfth grade.” Raini focuses on education but is a leader in her community. Another community leader is Khyati from Chitrakoot who lives in a school for the blind and dreams of starting a braille library out of recycled newspapers. Newlon’s dream “is that in a couple of years, my face will be gone and their faces will be shown. That’s why I want to concentrate on their stories and what they’ve done.”
The fellowship focuses on starting with one girl icon within a community who empowers other girls in her peer group. There are now 25 girl icons but as of December there will be 100 girl. By 2021, the foundation hopes for 1,000 Girl Icon Fellows advocating for women in India.