At 18 years old, Anjana is on the cusp of completing her school education in Mangolpuri, an industrial neighbourhood in the northwest of Delhi. In a country where girls drop out of school at a far higher rate than boys, it has not been an easy journey for Anjana.

Anjana now approaches the critical juncture in her transition from education to work. Her mother, a homemaker, and her father, a supervisor at a local manufacturer, are not well-placed to guide her. With early marriage looming over her head, Anjana’s future looks uncertain. “I had no motivation, no clue about my future because I didn’t have much information about various career options available. My parents were also not convinced for my higher education and had started thinking about my marriage as soon as I complete school,” she said.

Anjana is not the only young woman in this predicament. 85 percent of the 500,000 students surveyed for the India Skills Report 2018 said that they are not equipped to make decisions about their future. In rural India, 67 percent of girls who are graduates do not work.

Tens of thousands of young women like Anjana are held back from participating in the workforce in meaningful ways due to factors such as a lack of access to formal and systematic information about prospective careers. Female labour force participation rates have been steadily declining in India, with a 10 percent fall between 2005 and 2010.

The Disha project

Women face unconducive environments – at home, at the workplace, and in society – that prevent them from accessing information and seizing opportunities to improve their lives. However, this can change with the right support systems in place. Young women like Anjana are key catalysts for change, and stand to unlock a significant amount of economic potential.

In this spirit, IKEA Foundation, the India Development Foundation and UNDP developed the Disha project, which aims to empower one million young women and address issues disproportionately affecting them. By providing underprivileged Indian women with skills training and employment opportunities, the project helps young women actualise their full potential, and create a sustainable future for their families.

The Disha project brings together key stakeholders in government, business and civil society to develop a holistic approach to women empowerment. It tests and scales models that respond to women’s needs and aspirations, while balancing the expectations of an evolving jobs market.

In Delhi, the Disha project collaborated with the Directorate of Education (DoE) to support young women like Anjana during the critical juncture of their education-to-work transition. Recognising schools as a strategic point for intervention, the partnership worked to bridge critical information gaps for grade 10-12 students, especially girls, by providing career guidance and counselling services.

This included psychometric tests and one-to-one career counselling from professionally trained counsellors, as well as an online platform to provide students with instant access to information on higher education, skills training, and employment options. Over 400,000 students participated in the project, and Anjana was one of them.

New knowledge, new opportunities

For young women, like Anjana, who lacked reliable sources of information and guidance, the programme struck a chord. Two months after the career assessment tests were conducted across schools in Delhi, each student receives a unique individual 16-page report on their aptitude, personality, and interest, and commenced one-on-one counselling.

For the first time, Anjana was able to talk to a trusted source of information. Her report revealed that she has high creative potential that would be best suited for jobs involving social interactions. She now plans to attend beauty courses at the nearest Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana Skill Centre, and eventually pursue a university education.

With a better understanding of her strengths, Anjana can now pursue new employment opportunities best suited to her, and make meaningful contributions that will bring financial stability to her and her family in the long term. “I felt confident as now I can convince my parents to let me attend further studies. They agreed after seeing the clarity I have regarding my interest, and knowing how to pursue it,” Anjana shared.

The leadership and foresight of the DoE has empowered Anjana and thousands of young women like her, by equipping them with the knowledge to make informed life decisions, and inspiring them to pursue their own career with a sense of agency and purpose. In the long run, such programmes will make a real difference, not only to individuals, but to India’s overall economic development.

This article was originally published by UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence in the book ‘Public Service 2030: Making the Sustainable Development Goals happen’.

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