Meet The Man Improving India's School System — One Toilet At A Time

"We don't realize how important a role a clean toilet has played in our lives."

In India, 23 percent of adolescent girls drop out of school because there isn't a safe, clean toilet accessible to them. All it took was a chance encounter with one to convince Amitabh Shah that needed to change — and that he was the one to do it. Shah and a friend had just bought some ice cream from a street vendor in a small city in India when an 8-year-old girl named Priya approached him. 

While asking him for ice cream, Priya pulled on Shah's white shirt and, in doing so, accidentally stained it with the dirt on her hands. "So the ice cream seller comes out and just slaps the little girl so hard that she falls down, and I'm like, 'Hey man, why the hell did you do that? Did I tell you I had a problem with it? Never ever touch a child,'" Shah continued. 

After telling off the ice cream vendor, he went to Priya and gave her his hand so he could help pull her up off the ground.  He asked her why she was here, putting herself in harm's way to beg for ice cream, instead of somewhere safe, like school. He said she pointed half a block away and told him, "You see the school over there? That's my school, and between 300 girls there's just two toilets, and the drinking water works once in a blue moon." 

Due to these unsanitary conditions, Priya fell sick one day, and her family knew they couldn't afford to pay for a doctor. With no other ways of preventing potential illness, Priya's father told her to stop going to the school. Unsatisfied with this "solution" to an all-too-common problem, Shah took it upon himself to come up with a new one and make it a reality. 

"Five years ago, when this happened, I realized that you aren't just teaching [children] math, science, and English; you need to give them toilets," he explained. "So that was the first school we upgraded. So that school has about eight toilets (versus two earlier) and [separate sinks for] dishwashing, drinking, and handwashing." 

Priya's school was just the beginning of what has become an international revolution in giving more Indian children, especially girls, greater access to education. Since then, Shah's organization Yuva Unstoppable has mobilized over 150,000 volunteers to transform more than 600 government schools with better toilets and improved drinking water, benefitting more than 4,500,000 underprivileged children across 40 cities in India. 

"We've seen this to directly have an effect with the health, the attendance, and the academic outcomes for the children," Shah said. "Because if they don't go to school, then they're in big trouble because they can be on the streets, they can be molested, [and] they can be exploited… We don't realize how important a role a clean toilet has played in our lives." 

This is especially true for young women and girls in rural areas who often have to relieve themselves outdoors. They are the most vulnerable to leering, taunts, and even sexual assault

"We see so much talent in the young people of India. In particular, we believe in the power of women to transform communities.  Yuva Unstoppable is helping us realize the full potential of young girls by providing clean, safe bathrooms in schools," Carrie Morgridge, Yuva Unstoppable's board member, told A Plus. "The transformation doesn't stop at the school, however. A clean water supply and safe girls' bathrooms change the entire village."  

Morgridge, the Chief Disruptor of the Morgridge Family Foundation, first got involved with Yuva Unstoppable after meeting Shah at a United Way conference in the United States when she was giving a speech on her book, Every Gift Matters. When she listened to Shah's speech about Yuva Unstoppable, she felt compelled to invest $100,000 in his organization. "Amitabh was able to talk to me [to show] the way that I could… make a world of difference," she said. 

Of the 1.1 million schools in India, 47 percent do not have a toilet for girls at all, according to Shah. He, Morgridge, and the rest of Yuva Unstoppable plan to upgrade 10,000 schools in the next five years, creating healthier, safer, and economically empowered communities while they're at it. 

While 10,000 upgraded schools in five years is the concrete goal of Yuva Unstoppable, its overarching goal is to create a movement for girls and young women that lives up to its unstoppable name. That commitment not only fuels Shah throughout his work, but makes it not seem like work at all. Instead, he considers it "pure joy." 

Whenever he gets to meet students through Yuva Unstoppable, they remind Shah to be grateful for what he has in life. "They jump on us, and they're equally happy and full of joy and excited to see us in the schools," he said. The students' gratitude inspired him to challenge volunteers, supporters, partners, children of Yuva Unstoppable to write down three things they're grateful for every night. 

For many lucky people, being able to use the bathroom more than once a day wouldn't make that list. It wouldn't even register in their mind as something for which they should be grateful. But it made the list for Prema, a 12-year-old girl Shah met during a surprise visit to one of the schools in Mumbai that Yuva Unstoppable upgraded. She asked him to bend down so she could tell him something. "So I go down a little more on my knees and she yells, 'Thank you!'" Shah recalled. He asked her, "Why do you say that?" She simply responded, "Because now, I can pee twice a day."

The ability to go to the bathroom twice during the school day may not seem like much until you take just a second to think about it. How often do you go to the bathroom every day? What if you couldn't? Would you be able to live without a toilet for a day? 

"If the answer is no, let's give the same possibility to everybody else," Shah said.

Since Yuva Unstoppable began, there has been a 30 percent increase in girls going back to the upgraded schools to get their high school degree, according to Morgridge. On her visits to India, she, too, has seen the positive impact of Yuva Unstoppable firsthand. "Education is the way out of poverty in India," she said. "We feel so blessed to be a small part of this movement." 

Though Morgridge and her foundation have made large investments in Shah's organization, she still considers herself just a "small" part of the overall movement because she believes the true power for positive change lies in the global community of giving. 

"What we have seen, just in the past five years, is that there's more power in crowdfunding than just one or two people like myself writing a somewhat large check," she explained. "There is more power in 20 people getting together and donating a $100 than there is in one person writing this check because those 20 people are gonna tell 20 people who are gonna tell 20 people." When that happens, there's no stopping Yuva Unstoppable.

While Shah continues to focus on improving schools in India, he one day hopes his work with Yuva Unstoppable will inspire others to found similar organizations in their own parts of the world. He'll be the first one to share his knowledge, resources, and gratitude. "Any country where a child needs a toilet and clean water to drink in school," he said. "We want to help." 


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