In the brief, cherished lull between waking up and household chores, Seema Mahato, 15, hunched over a crude wooden table, racing to complete her English homework. By the pale yellow light of a kerosene lamp, she softly read aloud from a story called "A Visit to the Zoo," which she had painstakingly copied into a lined notebook. It was 4:30 a.m.
An hour later, the sky had begun to lighten outside the windowless brick house that she shares with her family and several farm animals. Seema reluctantly put away her schoolwork. After fetching water from the neighborhood pump, she squatted in her dirt yard and washed last night's dishes with soap and ash, then headed into the cowshed with a straw basket to collect dung. Soon it would be time for school.
The daughter of illiterate low-caste farm workers, Seema struggles to make space for learning. Her chores begin before dawn and resume as soon as she gets home from her 9th-grade classes at a Catholic missionary school. On days off from school, she often does farm work for local landlords for the equivalent of 43 cents a day.
It is a balancing act that doesn't always balance. A welfare agency gave Seema a bicycle under a program to boost school attendance among girls by cutting travel time on lonely country roads. That helped, but other demands have kept her struggling to keep up with her studies. Earlier this year she was nearly pulled out of school by her mother, who wanted her to work in the fields.
Seema's uphill quest for a high school diploma and ultimately a nursing degree -- a goal so audacious that she has yet to mention it to her parents -- is emblematic of one of India's most urgent social challenges: keeping girls in school.
Numerous development studies have shown that improving educational opportunities for girls yields benefits across society. Girls who complete basic schooling are more likely to postpone marriage and children. They raise smaller, better-educated families that in turn contribute to higher living standards. An emphasis on girls' education has been widely cited as a major factor in the economic success of other parts of Asia such as South Korea and Taiwan.
Yet India, for all its economic and scientific successes of recent years, has proved stubbornly resistant to the trend. Girls in India attend school at significantly lower rates than boys, accounting for four in 10 students in grades six through 12, according to the World Bank. India's female adult literacy rate of 45 percent (compared with 68 percent for men) is on a par with Sudan's.
Although attitudes are changing, many parents -- particularly among the rural poor, who still account for most of India's billion-plus people -- fail to see the point of educating daughters who typically marry as teens and leave the house. Sons, by contrast, are regarded as future breadwinners who will take care of their parents in old age.
"Somewhere in their heart of hearts, they do feel that the girl belongs to another family -- she'll be married off, while the son will be with us for the rest of our lives," said Scholastica Kiro, a senior welfare official in Jharkhand state, who helps administer the bicycle program.
But the picture is not without hope. Government programs aimed at boosting girls' access to school -- such as the bicycle initiative -- are starting to narrow the gender gap in education, according to development experts. Government data show that in 1999, the percentage of girls between the ages of six and 14 who were attending school was 74 percent, up from 59 percent just six years earlier.
A cheerful, self-confident girl whose thick wavy hair displays the telltale reddish tint of chronic malnutrition, Seema grew up in Kudri, an isolated farming village of about 80 households roughly 500 miles southeast of New Delhi, the capital. She has a 13-year-old brother and a 12-year-old sister, both of whom are also enrolled in school. An older sister, Rekha, 17, is mentally handicapped and all but helpless. Their home has neither electricity nor running water. A nearby field serves as the latrine.
Like many of their neighbors, Seema's father, Meghnath, and her mother, Vimla, earn the bulk of their living -- about $43 per month -- as laborers at nearby rice paddies and grain fields. "Only when we work do we get grain for the next day," said Meghnath, 45, a thin, weary-looking man with a fringe of unkempt gray hair.
Despite her humble circumstances, Seema is lucky in at least one sense: She lives about three miles from Nirmala High School, an unassuming whitewashed structure that was founded by a Belgian missionary in 1964 and now serves 363 boys and girls, whose classes are segregated by sex.
In morning Hindi class, Seema sat attentively with about 40 other 9th-grade girls -- all wearing white uniforms with their hair plaited and tied in loops with black ribbons -- as teacher Peter Bhengra led students in a spirited discussion of a short story set in an Indian village.
"What does it mean to 'boycott' a man?" he asked, calling on Seema and referring to one of the characters in the story.
"Nobody talks to him -- nobody moves around with him," Seema answered, before sitting down with a relieved look.
The teacher nodded his approval, then called on another student to explain why villagers were avoiding the man. "Because he sings Hindi movie songs and winks at women!" the girl said in mock horror. The class erupted in laughter.
When lunch break was announced with the clang of a hand-rung steel bar -- the school has no electricity -- Seema confided she was working exceptionally hard in science because she wants to be a nurse. "I will become something with this education," she declared.
Stealing Time to Study
As night fell in Kudri, Seema sat on her haunches in the kitchen and prepared dinner. Working by the light of a tiny oil lamp, she chopped potatoes for a meatless curry, then mixed flour and water to make dough for flatbread. Finally, with the potatoes simmering on the stove, Seema tried to excuse herself to do her math homework.
But her mother, a stout woman whose vermilion-streaked hair part denotes her status as a married Hindu woman, ordered her to cook the bread. After an irritated retort, Seema started rolling out the dough in individual portions, which she then fried on a griddle. The process took nearly an hour, and Seema was the last to eat. At 9:55, she pulled out her pencil box, then struggled with geometry problems for half an hour before flopping onto the hard wooden pallet she shares with her younger sister.
"When I'm not attending school or doing homework, I'm doing housework," she said. During harvest season, her parents often pull her out of school to help them in the fields. Last year, she missed nearly 25 days that way.
In order to ease such pressures, Jharkhand state has, since 2001, given away 10,000 bicycles to disadvantaged schoolgirls between the ages of 13 and 17, according to Kiro, the welfare official. The purpose is to reward girls for staying enrolled, create more time for their studies and ease parents' fears about their daughters' safety during long, unescorted walks to school.
Staying in School
Before she got her bicycle in early 2002, Seema used to spend nearly an hour walking each way to and from school. Now she makes the trip in about 20 minutes, whizzing past glistening green rice paddies on a maroon one-speed with pictures of Bollywood movie stars pasted to the mud flaps. The bicycle has allowed her to squeeze in extra tutoring before school and devote more time to helping her mother around the house.
School officials say they have noticed a significant improvement in girls' attendance rates and academic performance since the program started, with the share of those passing their final exams rising from 35 percent to 55 percent in just two years.
But as Seema discovered one day last March, a bicycle by itself is no panacea. The news in her report card could hardly have been worse: She had failed her final exams in math, science and English and would have to repeat the 9th grade. Weeping inconsolably, she went to see her English teacher and informal mentor, Lucy Hansda, who pulled her into an empty classroom to try to calm her down.
"I'm a girl; they won't let me study," Hansda, 34, recalled the teenager saying of her parents between sobs. After Seema warned that her mother would use the failing grades as an excuse to pull her out of school, Hansda, an Ursuline nun with a warm manner and a ready smile, promised to intercede.
During a meeting two days later at Hansda's convent, Seema's mother, Vimla, told the teacher that Seema would have to end her schooling because the family could no longer afford the cost of supplies and the annual tuition of 540 rupees, or $11, both women recalled.
But Hansda proved an effective ally. "Whatever you do, don't pull her out of school," Seema's mother recounted Hansda saying over the course of a lengthy, emotional conversation. "This is her age to study, and if you pull her out of school now, her life will be ruined."
Hansda told Vimla Mahato that she could pay Seema's tuition in installments and that the school would cover the cost of her daughter's notebooks. After a long chat that night, Seema's mother and father agreed to keep their daughter in school, at least for the time being.
Seema has another ally in her aunt, Shanti Devi, 34, her father's younger sister and the only member of the family to attend college.
During a visit to Kudri in June, Devi said she was distressed to hear that the teenager had almost been pulled out of school. She privately promised Seema that she would help pay for her schooling through the 12th grade, and even through college if she made it that far. "This is a secret plan of mine and my aunt," Seema said. "I'll convince my parents to delay my marriage if I pass the 10th grade."
One measure of Seema's enthusiasm for school is the effort she puts into getting ready for it. In the morning, after clearing away the breakfast dishes, she knelt in front of a small mirror. With a look of intense concentration, she plaited her hair, moisturized her face with cream and finished it off with a dusting of talcum powder.
Then she changed into her uniform, hopped onto her bike and pedaled off. Her braids streamed in the wind as the bicycle gathered speed.