The Smile FoundationIndia is one of the poorest and populated countries, with more than 1.3 billion people. Nearly 70% of the population lives on less than $2 per day. Furthermore, women and children are among the most vulnerable groups that are most affected by poverty and inequality. The Smile Foundation commits to improving educational outcomes in India so that children have a way to improve their lives and rise out of poverty.

Education in India

The National Sample Survey Organization’s 2017-2018 survey showed that roughly 30 million children aged 6-17 were not attending school. UNICEF reports that approximately 20 million children between the ages of 3 and 6 do not attend preschool. Between 2011 and 2018, literacy rates in India increased by 5.07%. However, in 2018, the female literacy rate in India was 70.3%, compared to the male literacy rate of 84.7%.

Access, availability and quality of education in India are some of the most prevalent barriers to combating poverty for vulnerable women and children in underserved communities. The exclusion of children from educational opportunities based on caste, socio-religious identification, gender and ability, facilitates even more marginalization and poverty for disadvantaged groups.

The Smile Foundation

Education in India, especially among rural communities, is a strong determinant for ensuring a chance of economic security and female employment. Thanks to the diligent work of the Smile Foundation, a nonprofit organization empowering change through education and awareness, disadvantaged women, youth and children have an opportunity to escape poverty and achieve economic security.

Santanu Mishra, the co-founder and executive trustee of Smile Foundation, refers to education as, “the great equalizer that opens new gateways and opportunities to improve the standard of life.” Mishra explains that poverty is a multifaceted state that can derive from a lack of quality educational attainment, in addition to the absence of certain knowledge, assets and opportunities. Acquiring an education in India can improve individual well-being while interrupting the generational and cyclical nature of poverty. “I believe that education is the key that can transform the story of an individual from trying to survive to thriving in life,” says Mishra.

Vision and Approach

The Smile Foundation came about in 2002 with the aim of making a positive contribution to society. Today, the organization serves more than 2,000 villages and slums in 25 states of India through welfare projects promoting education, healthcare, income and women’s empowerment.

The Smile Foundation believes that “Civic Driven Change” which upholds public responsibility to increase community-based engagement, is pivotal to achieve transformation. The organization has collaborated with local and international groups, institutions and public figures to bear global awareness and response. In 2010, the Smile Foundation produced, “I Am Kalam,” the first film created by a development organization, which premiered at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival, winning 17 national and international awards. The film addresses the issue and importance of child education as a tool to rise out of poverty.

Utilizing a “lifecycle approach,” the Smile Foundation aims to improve welfare by empowering children and families through meaningful education, healthcare and social skills. The Smile Foundation employs “Social Venture Philanthropy” —  a concept which means connecting social investment plans to charitable giving by focusing on reach, sustainability, a culture of leadership and clear accountability. The organization’s Outreach model reaches rural regions, enabling deeper insight into obstacles of project implementation.

Mission Education

The Smile Foundation developed Mission Education (ME), a national program providing quality healthcare and education in India to over 232,000 underserved children since 2002. The ME program guarantees unbiased access to education through a four-step approach. This involves a focus on students, a focus on teachers, prioritizing an effective learning environment and community and stakeholder engagements.

“Education of girls also gets priority, with 51% of total beneficiaries being girls. This is done by bringing about an attitudinal change in the parents’ outlook toward education,” says Mishra. In 2019, 87% of qualified students who graduated from ME centers entered traditional schools and almost every ME teacher possessed sufficient academic training.

Going Forward

Amid COVID-19 challenges, the Smile Foundation has implemented personalized, virtual education plans to guarantee disadvantaged students an adequate opportunity to succeed. The Smile Foundation also utilizes socio-behavioral guidance and capacity-building opportunities for teachers to prepare students to become active members of society.

“I often say that our vision at Smile should be that one day we should not exist,” says Mishra. Mishra explains that the Smile Foundation intends to mobilize community-based action, sensitize global responses and perpetuate government accountability to achieve sustainable change and eventually become a bygone organization.

Improving Education in India

The Indian government has taken strides toward improving the education system but further measures are crucial to combat the pandemic-induced likelihood of increased out-of-school children rates. Mishra suggests that the government should prioritize family-based social and economic assistance to encourage parents to send their children back to school. Mishra believes that a synergistic approach works best. This involves support from NGOs, advantageous stakeholders, community programs and components of an effective learning environment. In combination, this produces the greatest results for providing children an equal opportunity to thrive in life and rise out of poverty.

Violet Chazkel
Photo: Flickr