By Nidhi Shukla, Girl Rising President
Within the stories of Zainab Bie, Sushmita Krishnan, Licypriya Kangujam, Hina Saifi, and millions of other young Indian women, a narrative of innovation and solutions takes shape. In my homeland, the world's most populous country with one of the highest proportions of young people, the key to our future lies in unlocking the potential of our youth, especially girls who face disproportionate barriers to education. At this juncture, a generation of young women is rising, confronting the impacts of climate change that threaten India and the entire world. Their stories of solution-driven action must influence the decisions made at COP28 this month and all decisions to come, underscoring the undeniable role of girls' education as a potent solution to the climate crisis.
At 13, Zainab Bie witnessed the harsh realities facing girls in an informal settlement in India. Amidst the pervasive lack of hygiene and exposure to environmental hazards, she saw their living quarters surrounded by toxic wastes and increasingly vulnerable to the extreme weather patterns caused by climate change. This settlement bordered a school - Zainab’s school. But instead of attending classes, the children spent their days picking through refuse for scrap metal to sell. The experience served as a catalyst for Zainab’s commitment to address climate justice and educational equity. Now 20, a college economics student, a Girl Rising Student Ambassador, and an experienced advocate, Zainab is a founding member of the Climate Education Coalition, a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and lawmakers bringing climate education to schools in India and around the world. As she prepares to participate in COP28 in the coming days, Zainab aims to passionately advocate for girls' and women's equitable access to education, paving the way for a sustainable future.
In Southern India, Sushmita Krishnan, a member of Girl Rising’s 2023 Future Rising Fellowship cohort, is using her Ph.D. studies in ecology to develop climate solutions and drive climate justice. The Fellowship provides Sushmita with leadership training, mentoring, network building, and financial support and equips her to craft a narrative around her climate leadership. Her Future Rising project focuses on managing an invasive tree species called Lantana Camara through the entrepreneurial and artisanal skills of tribal women, who use the tree to create furniture. Sushmita is also on a culinary mission to promote climate-resilient millets as a sustainable alternative to rice. Because millets have a significantly smaller carbon and water footprint compared to rice, her work with this super-food could have a far-reaching impact in India.
Licypriya Kangujam, age 13, has already traveled the world demanding that people in power protect her generation’s right to a clean, safe environment. Her activism began at age 6 influencing thousands of her peers to use their voice to demand climate action. She founded a nonprofit last year, the Licypriya Foundation, that is in the midst of a massive tree-planting campaign and creating a climate change curriculum for primary and secondary schools.
Hina Saifi, 22, is currently pursuing an MBA from the Bharti Institute of Technology. A decade ago, attending secondary school seemed uncertain in her marginalized village. Fueled by determination and support from family and a local NGO, Hina not only completed her schooling but proceeded to college. Last year, she launched 'Suraj Se Samriddhi,' a campaign advocating the benefits of solar power, disseminating information about rooftop solar installations, solar pumps, and solar-powered air pollution solutions.
These four young women are remarkable, but they are not anomalies. There are millions like them, using their education to address climate change. With India facing increasing climate change vulnerabilities, these young women and their peers may just be the key to the future of my country and to the future of our world.
Today India stands at a critical juncture. Droughts, floods, and landslides have become commonplace as India is home to 72% of the 750 million people exposed to climate change hazards in South Asia. Listed among the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, our growing seasons have already changed, monsoons are more extreme, and more than 300 million people live on low-lying coastal zones. Studies predict that some Indian cities will be completely unlivable by the end of the century.
At the same time, my country - the world’s most populous - also has one of the world’s highest percentages of young people, a demographic that is predicted to persist for at least a decade. At a time when other countries around the world are adapting to an aging population, India has a youthful advantage - the chance to capture the energy, ideas, and talents of our young population to build a more sustainable and just future. What an opportunity! And yet, a significant percentage of these young people, predominantly girls, are left behind. Education reforms in the last decade have improved education for both girls and boys, but recent literacy rates show that girls still lag behind boys. The Borgen Project and other studies have shown that girls continue to drop out of secondary school at higher rates than boys due to lack of menstrual supplies, forced marriage, and pressure to join the labor force, trends that particularly affect girls living in rural areas.
With India's future inextricably tied to climate action and to the immense potential of its youth, investing in girls’ education emerges as an imperative for our future.
At Girl Rising, our programs in eight countries are driving a movement for girls’ education. Here in India, through our partnerships with organizations based in the country, we reach over 10 million young people. Through our partner Slam Out Loud, we are working with the district government in Chandrapur, helping young students reflect on the effects of climate change they see in their communities and the impact it has had on their lives. Through our Future Rising program, we are building a global network of young leaders who are driving solutions to climate change in their communities, and with Girl Rising’s support, leading advocacy at the world’s most influential convenings.
Through our efforts, we are helping to drive investment in girls’ education and girls’ leadership as a climate solution. Research shows access to education saves girls’ lives and unlocks their potential to become the visionary climate leaders we urgently need — building resilience in the present and changing policies for the future. As we strive to mobilize a mass movement to invest in girls’ education as a climate solution, we turn to the power of storytelling. Storytelling serves as the bridge between reason and emotion - a time-honored approach to help forge understanding and ignite action.
The stories of Zainab, Sushmita, Licypriya, and Hina show the collective strength of millions of young Indian women. They illustrate the transformative impact of education on girls and the imperative for their voices to resonate in global conversations about climate change. These stories of solution-driven action must influence the decisions made at COP28 this month and beyond, underscoring the undeniable role of girls' education as a potent solution to the climate crisis.
Girl Rising stands with young women like Zainab, who are leading the way - and we join her in her urgent call to action, “As we stand on the brink of change, let us recognize that women, especially in the global south, are not only the most affected by the climate crisis but also the most resilient force against it. To combat this challenge, we must empower our women and girls through equitable access to resources, opportunities, and education. It is through the enlightenment of our mothers, daughters, and sisters that we pave the way for climate justice, ensuring a sustainable, just future for generations to come.”