ONE of the few most significant organisations championing the cause of the empowerment of underprivileged adolescent girls is Milaan Foundation, started by Dhirendra Pratap Singh in 2007. He has had several successful forays in developing strategy and scaling operations for social impact organisations, including leading the India operations for Vidya Grants, an education-focused philanthropic fund based out of Chicago. Singh was the CEO of Azadi Inc, an impact venture that developed a female entrepreneurship network in rural UP to make health products accessible to the rural markets. Singh also served on the board of Community, India’s largest network of organisations working towards youth empowerment. 

In an effort to delve deeper into Milaan Foundation’s journey and the impact it has created, we spoke to Dhirendra Pratap Singh. 

Excerpts from the interview:

What drove you to start Milaan?

In the remote, rural village of Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh, the dream of four youths from the University of Delhi to make quality education a reality for children in underserved communities shaped the premise on which the edifice of Milaan Foundation stands now. What started as an informal learning centre grew into a formal school on request from the community. Our observations from the school made us realise the dearth of opportunities and choices for adolescent girls in rural India and led us to design the Girl Icon Programme, which aims to empower girls to stand up for themselves by advancing their skills, rights and opportunities to unlock their voice, choice and power. 

We strive to nurture, invest in and amplify the voices of adolescent girls from marginalised communities in India, and are driven by the belief that adolescent girls exhibit immense potential and passion for change. Their stories of hope and aspiration have the power to challenge the prevailing regressive socio-cultural gender norms that restrict them from exploring their full potential. 

At Milaan, we believe in the power of collaboration to challenge intergenerational social norms and create alternative narratives. The name, Milaan, comes from the combination of two words: Milan, meaning coming together, and Elaan, meaning declaration, which collectively signifies the coming together of diverse mission-driven people for a movement demanding a more equal and just world. If you wish to join Milaan’s mission to build a more equitable future for our girls click this link.

What are the challenges that you faced while setting up the organisation?

When setting up the organisation, the founders encountered several challenges. The group consisted of young students who were new to the development sector and lacked extensive networks. Their limited experience and lack of funding opportunities further complicated matters. These circumstances posed significant hurdles that needed to be overcome in order to establish the organisation successfully.

Tell us more about the cause areas that you work in and the problems that you are trying to solve?

Our projects primarily focus on adolescent girls from the marginalised communities of India for whom we promote the continuation of secondary education by addressing barriers to the same – such as prevention of child marriage, prevention of violence against women and girls, and the lack of adequate health and well-being. We enable our goals through the use of technology, undertaking life skills-based leadership pedagogy, offering one-on-one mentoring support and promoting community participation. We measure the impact of our work through robust monitoring and evaluation frameworks and have also been independently evaluated by scholars from UC Berkeley and other social impact consultancies. 

The following are our interventions with adolescent girls which have had a larger impact on the community as a whole:

Girl Icon Program
Our flagship program, the Girl Icon Program is an 18-month leadership development intervention for adolescent girls between the ages of 12-18 who have demonstrated the willingness and ability to challenge social barriers that restrict the unleashing of girls’ potential and voices. This program invests in collectivising girls at the grassroots, delivering comprehensive life skills-based education and instigating collective action on social issues that affect adolescent girls and their rights to adequate education, health and safety. 

Swarachna School and Swarachna Girls’ Hostel
Swarachna School (co-ed) was established in 2007 by Milaan Foundation in Sidhauli block of Sitapur District in UP to set up the first Senior Secondary School for the surrounding 13 villages. Swarachna envisions becoming a centre of excellence and innovation in developing and implementing an education model that promotes concept-based and activity-driven learning and inculcates the values of self-belief, empathy and leadership. The school has expanded recently to include a residential facility for 120 girls from low-income communities in Uttar Pradesh impacted by COVID-19. The girls are provided free boarding and lodging and all their needs are taken care of – from education, clothing (including uniforms) and food, and they have access to all the facilities of the Swarachna school including the learning labs, library and sports programs. 

Unmukt Program
Unmukt focuses on changing the narratives that perpetuate violence against women and girls, especially in the public spaces of rural Uttar Pradesh, and works with two stakeholder groups. The first targets over 3,000 adolescent boys and girls aged 13-18 in two blocks of Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh to create awareness on the issue of violence against women and girls. The second is the Changemakers fellowship program which works with 25 women between 18-40 years of age from different districts of the state on a fellowship model for women leaders from diverse backgrounds that have demonstrated a commitment to address issues of violence against women and girls by working at the community level.

Who are the people that the NGO is helping, what are their backgrounds and the extent of their distress?

We are a non-profit social impact organisation working with and for adolescent girls and young women from marginalised communities. These girls and women are from families with an annual income of less than Rs 1,00,000/- and we impart knowledge, skills and the social environment needed to help them pursue their aspirations. We believe in the power of movement building, working closely with the community to challenge the social norms that reinforce gender inequality and to re-write the narratives that shape the day-to-day lives of women and girls, normalising social, economic and political exclusion. 

We have, in the last 15 years, worked with over 50,000 children, especially adolescent girls, creating a thriving network of change agents in 3 states of India – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.

Since its inception what is the impact created by the NGO?

Swarachna School & Swarachna Girls’ Hostel
We believe every child should have access to quality education. We empower young minds to discover their passions and realise their true potential in an ambitious and joyful environment. 

Serving over 560 first generation learners every year, the school is built on the pillars of equality, opportunity and leadership to provide holistic and value-based education to children with an emphasis on girls’ education and retention through:

  • Digital learning
  • Sports development
  • Library
  • Science and computer labs
  • Creative and performing arts
Swarachna School impact and achievements: 
  • Delivering 100% pass results in 10th and 12th grades for 6 consecutive years
  • Top performing school in the District Athletic Meet, 2022
  • Awarded a lifetime affiliation by the Uttar Pradesh Board till 12th grade

Serving 120 girls every year, the Swarachna Girls’ Hostel provides a nurturing community for the girls’ well-being and development and is an abode where girls are encouraged to be creative, playful and joyous with access to:

  • Safe residential facility 
  • Quality secondary education 
  • Healthcare 
  • Nutritious meals 
  • Vocational training 
  • Sports programs 
  • Dedicated women’s staff 

We strive to create a social environment where girls feel safe, foster deep friendships and dare to dream big. Every girl at Swarachna Hostel is out of the chain of suffering, exploitation and violence and shows an:

  • Increase in enrollment ratios from secondary to senior secondary 
  • Increased agency and decision-making skills 
  • Improved health outcomes and BMI 
What is your vision for the organisation? 

Our mission is empowering girls by advancing their skills, rights and opportunities to unlock their voice, choice and potential. The larger vision for the organisation is to create an equal and inclusive world where every girl is educated, healthy and safe.

What are the biggest challenges your NGO is facing currently? 

Human resources and capacity-building efforts often require a financial investment. However, funding constraints can make it challenging for us to hire and retain qualified staff, provide training and professional development opportunities or establish mentorship programs. These limitations perpetuate a cycle of resource scarcity and restrict the ability to scale our operations. 

We are currently grappling with the significant challenges of inadequate human resources and limited capacity-building opportunities. The lack of human resources poses a major hurdle in our ability to effectively carry out our mission and meet the growing demands of the communities we serve. With insufficient staff, it becomes increasingly difficult to implement projects, conduct research, and provide crucial services to those in need. Additionally, the absence of capacity-building opportunities further exacerbates these challenges, making it difficult to address complex issues and navigate evolving circumstances. This restricts our ability to adapt, innovate and maximise our impact. Consequently, overcoming these obstacles becomes crucial for us to thrive and make a lasting difference in the lives of those we aim to support.

How crowdfunding and online donations are helping the organisation?

Crowdfunding and online donations have played a crucial role in supporting our mission. Through various online platforms and social media channels, we have been able to reach a wider audience and mobilise support for our programs and initiatives. The power of crowdfunding has enabled individuals from all around the world to contribute financially to our cause, regardless of geographical barriers. This has provided us with a diverse funding stream, allowing us to expand their reach and impact. Online donations have also made it easier for supporters to contribute regularly and conveniently. The transparency and accountability offered by online platforms have helped build trust among donors, as they can witness the direct impact of their contributions. Overall, crowdfunding and online donations have been instrumental in enabling us to continue our work and create lasting change in the lives of the marginalised communities we serve.

Discover more from

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.