'This Is the Destiny of Girls'

Across Much of South Asia, a Daughter's Life Is Circumscribed By Tradition and Poverty. But for Some, the Dreams Die Slower.

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.
By Mary Jordan
Saturday, December 13, 2008

LITTLE RANN OF KUTCH, India -- In the soft light of dawn, the cracked, dry seabed stretched endlessly in every direction. Jyotsna Patadia was alone -- she is often alone -- in her family's grass hut, a speck of life in the emptiness, cooking potatoes and onions over an open fire.

From October to May, Jyotsna, 15, works here in the desolate salt pans of western India, where her parents earn a living coaxing salt from the ground. The family arrives when the summer monsoons end and the water submerging this vast plain recedes.

Her two younger brothers stay behind in their village, Kharaghoda, a chaotic mix of camels and water buffalo, schools and vegetable sellers, newborn babies and blind old men.

Though the village of 12,000 is a seven-hour walk from Jyotsna's isolated hut on the salt pans, it might as well be England, it feels so different and far away.

"It's easier to be a boy," said Jyotsna, who was forced to drop out of school at 10 to help her parents. "They get to go to school."

Jyotsna's mother said she could not afford to let all three of her children study, so she picked her daughter to work. It is a familiar story in much of the developing world, and particularly South Asia. In India, half the women older than 15 are illiterate, twice the rate for men, and millions of poor girls are pulled out of school to help at home, often when they are 10 to 12 years old.

"I regret she has this hard life," said her mother, Ranjanben Patadia, 35. "But this is the destiny of girls. It was my destiny, too."

Unlike her mother, who never set foot in a classroom, Jyotsna did study on and off for a few years, thanks to a major government effort over the past decade to enroll all children. Though Jyotsna can still barely read or write, that progress has made her more aware of what she is now missing.

Human rights advocates say millions of teenage girls like Jyotsna are less resigned than their mothers were to the age-old preference in India for sons.

"Boys have more options," Jyotsna said one recent day as she tidied the one-room hut where she spends most of her time. She is told she is too old to play running games, yet notes that boys her age can.

Boys freely come and go, she said, but once girls reach puberty they are kept close to home, another reason that the start of a girl's menstrual period often means the end of her schooling.

"I would like to learn more," said Jyotsna, whose name means moonlight. She said people gossip that older girls who go to school "are too outgoing." But if she had more education, she said excitedly, "I would talk in front of 50, even 100 people!"

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