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'This Is the Destiny of Girls'

On the desolate salt pans of western India, as in much of the developing world, poverty and long-standing social customs bar many girls from attending school.

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To this day, in some parts of India, fewer than eight girls are born for every 10 boys, because parents abort female fetuses, a legacy of a centuries-old mind-set that values boys more. Sons carry the family name, inherit land and become the main breadwinners.

In this patriarchal society, fathers and brothers are widely seen as the decision-makers, many even telling wives and sisters what to cook and when to leave the house. Especially in rural India, girls are far likelier to die before age 5, because scarce food and medicine are given first to their brothers.

"The constitution says, yes, women are equal, but society says, no, they are not," said Veena Padia, program director in India for the international aid group CARE. "We really feel angry and frustrated, at times even disgusted," at the bias against women, she said. "Mind-sets take a long time to change."

Padia said that middle- and upper-class women have made significant advances and that it is poor and marginalized women who suffer the greatest discrimination.

There are so many girls like Jyotsna in the salt pans, working while their brothers study, that CARE is supporting Ganatar, a local group that digs pits and covers them with burlap roofs to serve as makeshift classrooms. The hope is that parents might send their daughters to school if it were closer.

When girls marry, as Jyotsna is expected to soon, they move in with their in-laws. Many view it as a bad investment to spend scarce cash on pencils and notebooks for a daughter who will work most of her life for her husband's family.

"They call it 'watering somebody else's garden,' " said Susan Durston, an education adviser with UNICEF.

Long-standing social customs and beliefs bar girls from school in many parts of South Asia.

In Bangladesh, "Eve-teasing" -- bullying and sexual harassment -- hounds girls from class. In Afghanistan last month, Muslim extremists threw acid in the faces of girls walking to school as a warning to stay home. Zealots in northwestern Pakistan recently torched 150 schools for girls.

Usually, though, a quieter discrimination steals a girl's chance to learn. Every day, parents decide, for instance, to buy a bicycle so their son can get to school but refuse to spend money on a book for their daughter.

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