Page 3 of 5   <       >

'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.

Jyotsna's brother Bharat, 13, bounced out of bed in a house that has everything Jyotsna's hut does not: electricity, a television, plenty of water, cousins dropping by.

After filling up on steaming tea and warm millet bread his grandmother served him, Bharat dressed in a spotless blue-checked shirt and blue pants and ran out the door into a dirt street filled with rickshaws and a buzz of laughter and life.

It was 7 a.m. and time to go to the Kharaghoda public school, just across the road.

When the bell rang in the courtyard, Bharat and others lined up to sing the national anthem. One boy beat a drum, two others clashed cymbals. Hands at their sides, the students stood in front of a picture of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge. There were 60 boys and 30 girls.

A 10-year-old girl named Hiral straggled in late, holding the hands of her brother and sister, ages 3 and 5. They would sit beside her all day in class, a practice teachers allow to encourage girls to come to school even when their parents make them babysit.

Bharat had no such distractions.

At 8 a.m. sharp, with his thick black hair combed neatly and his eyes bright and eager, he sat near the window in Classroom 4 reading about how India won its independence in 1947.

His room, in a century-old building that was once a jail, ached for paint. It is not that anyone here has much, human rights advocates say, but rather that what little there is so often goes to boys.

In Bharat's class there were 21 boys and nine girls. The male teacher -- many elementary school teachers in India are male -- spoke near a poster with pictures of 24 Indian leaders. With the exception of Indira Gandhi, all were men.

The teacher, Surendra Zala, lectured about British colonial rule. Speaking in the local Gujarati language, he told his students it was important to learn English, "because you need it to be connected to the world and the Internet."

Bharat listened intently, neatly jotting down notes. His cotton book bag bulged with 29 workbooks and notepads. History is his favorite subject, and Mahatma Gandhi is his hero because he "won independence peacefully," he said later.

Geometry was next, and then recess, when Bharat stopped drawing rectangles and ran toward a wobbly aluminum slide in the dusty schoolyard.


<          3           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company