Teaming up on a tech to help protect at-risk girls in rural India
Microsoft employees hacked together with the nonprofit Yuwa to make a desperately needed mobile app
It’s human nature: we respond to stories, not generalizations.
Devika Mittal, a corporate strategy manager at Microsoft who grew up in New Delhi and now lives in Washington, DC, knew that child trafficking and violence against women in rural areas in India was a growing human-rights crisis. But for a long time, the fate of at-risk Indian girls far away from her, while distressing, was something she felt helpless to change.
“You know that these problems exist, and you want to help,” she said. “But you also feel lost and like you can’t truly engage or help drive real impact when you’re living far away in DC.”
That all changed when Mittal flew to Microsoft’s Hyderabad office to meet Franz Gastler, the founder of Yuwa, a nonprofit soccer and school academy for girls in Jharkhand, India, whose students face the terrifying reality every day.
Gastler told Mittal the story of a student who had come to his soccer program every day for weeks. She appeared to be blossoming in the supportive environment that emphasized self-worth and self-determination. But then one day, she didn’t show up to the academy. She was gone the next day, and the next; she never came back. He had no idea what happened to her; it wasn’t until later that program leaders discovered that the girl had died, allegedly at the hands of an abusive family member.
Mittal was stunned. “Learning about this girl’s story in a real context motivated me to contribute whatever skills I could to help Yuwa’s mission. The work they’re doing is incredible, and I wanted to be a part of the tangible impact they’re making on young girls’ lives in India.”
She got that opportunity to make a difference when Yuwa partnered this year with Microsoft’s annual Hackathon, a three-day, global event for employees. Microsoft Hackathon teams have fun mad-sciencing new projects and ideas, using Microsoft technology to help solve some of the world’s greatest societal challenges.
To help nonprofit organizations such as Yuwa act on their own missions and find solutions, Microsoft invites them to hack alongside Microsoft employees. That’s how Mittal and 15 other employees from five countries came together to work with Gastler to build a tracking and predictive app that would help Gastler in his quest to keep girls progressing through Yuwa’s program and focused on their futures.
Yuwa: helping girls discover their worth
Yuwa’s central mission is to empower girls to break the cycle of poverty and abuse they inherited and instead help them discover their worth, through education and team sports, in rural India where more than half the women and girls are illiterate. Gastler had successfully started the organization but now needed more-sophisticated digital tools to help it and girls succeed.
“Jharkhand is a dangerous place to be a girl,” said Gastler. “If you don’t know your self-worth, you’ve got no defense against all the things that might come at you. But when girls know their worth, they’re limitless.”
The statistics do not bode well for girls and young women in the region. Fifty percent of Jharkhand’s girls become child brides, and thousands are trafficked each year as laborers or sex workers.
Madhura Phadke, Mittal’s Hackathon teammate who works at Microsoft in Redmond and grew up in India, said that girls are stripped of their very right to have a dream. In Jharkhand, where poverty is high and education is low, girls often lack the opportunity to further their schooling, and some are at risk for child marriage. These factors make many girls easy targets for criminals.
Through soccer and school, Yuwa helps girls find their purpose and provides a place where they are expected to be every day, somewhere that their absence will be noticed. They learn to read and write and understand their fundamental rights. Yuwa has connected some girls to other programs that have helped them travel outside of their villages to continue their education. But the success of Yuwa depends heavily on the girls’ consistent attendance.
The quicker Yuwa can respond to an absence, the more likely program managers are to bring a girl back if she’s at risk. Before the Hackathon project, Yuwa staff members were recording attendance onto 25 spreadsheets. The time it took to identify who was missing was time that an absent child likely didn’t have to waste. Yuwa staff members also wanted a way to better organize and track other needs, such as soccer shoe sizes, learning materials, and necessities for the school.
In addition to wanting to more easily track students, Gastler thought that the data being captured on their spreadsheets—limited to whether girls were present or absent on any given day—wasn’t as useful as it could be. Maybe, for instance, data could reveal patterns about how the girls’ levels of risk for child marriage and human trafficking might correlate to their attendance. Armed with those kinds of big answers, Gastler couldn’t imagine the impact that Yuwa could make.
Gastler and his Yuwa team knew that any technology they implemented would need to be adaptable for many kinds of devices, as well as take into account that internet connection and electricity in rural India can be sparse and unreliable.
While Gastler had been sitting on the idea to build an app for tracking students for four years, and even had a rendering, he had never found anyone with enough expertise to build it out.
Until he partnered with Microsoft employees at the Hackathon.
The right to dream of a better life
In June 2017, Gastler, a Minnesota native who worked in the corporate world before moving to Jharkhand to teach English, flew from the small village of Jharkhand to Microsoft offices in Hyderabad. For the next three days, he worked alongside Mittal and others to make the app.
Many of the Hackathon members felt a special pull to the Yuwa project because they are from India themselves. “I just knew I wanted to also add my skills to bolster the project, to see if there was anything I could do to help,” said Mittal.
Working via Skype and spanning three time zones, the team produced a prototype to send home with Gastler. The app helped Yuwa staff quickly see how many students were present or missing and could drill down to identify the individual girls and take action if needed that same day.
The Hackathon was just the beginning. Months later, the team is still extremely engaged, said Mittal. It is building out phase two of the app, which has more complex functionality, such as using machine learning to collect and interpret data.
And Mittal said the team believes the project could be applicable for other organizations and nonprofits and could scale, especially in rural areas. “With layering Power BI and other analytical capabilities, it could function as a prototype for other organizations.”
Working on the project has changed Mittal. She’s always been passionate about education for women, especially in India, but the issue now hits home in a new way.
“Now that I have seen what a lack of education does to girls in the country and have seen an organization that is making a tangible difference for girls who never thought they would get outside their villages, I am personally connected to it,” she said.
“I’m thankful that I have that opportunity working here at Microsoft.”
Visit yuwa-india.org for more information about how to be a part of Yuwa’s mission.