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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.

In English class, he pulled out his notebook full of random sentences: Dev plays cricket. Meet my friend Pittu. There is a peacock in the garden.

A cooling breeze drifted in through the classroom window.

* * *

Clack. Clack. Clack. The "machine," as everyone calls their water pump, sounds like a heartbeat. And in a way, it is. If it stops, so does life here. No more salt, money, meals. Jyotsna's parents earn $500 annually from mining salt, and that all depends on the rickety old pump sucking briny underground water to the surface.

Once there, the water is channeled into hand-dug ponds. The sun bakes it, and the salt crystals left behind are sold to flavor potato chips and scrambled eggs in distant lands.

One of Jyotsna's chores is to make sure that the machine, just outside the family's hut, keeps clackity-clacking. Sometimes it overheats or the fan belt breaks. Jyotsna then signals for help by holding a mirror up to the sun, creating flashes of light, and her parents come running.

At 6 one recent morning, Jyotsna had her breakfast: a cup of black tea. Milk doesn't exist in this place with no refrigeration. She brushed her brilliant white teeth with a toothbrush she keeps in a cranny in the dried-grass wall. There is no sink, no toilet.

Her parents had left before sunrise. They earn 35 cents for every 220-pound bag they fill with salt, so they start early and work late.

Dressed in a saffron-colored salwar-kameez, her bead necklace held together with a safety pin, Jyotsna folded the covers on her parents' cots. She sleeps on a thin bed of blankets in the dirt.

As daylight broke, she swept. The night's wind, as always, had blown back the caked mud she brushed away the day before. Her tiny 4-foot-10 frame bent at the waist, she tidied her patch of the plain, again.

By mid-morning she had warmed the previous night's lentils, bread and other leftovers and carried them to her parents for breakfast, a water jug balanced on her head.

Her parents struggle in the heat, and her father, Bhopabhai Patadia, 39, sometimes collapses. He has high blood pressure, as do many people here, because too much salt seeps into his body through cracks in his bare feet.


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