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Educating girls in India

An after-school program in industrial Delhi sets out to right the gender imbalance in Indian education.

Indian girls in colored powder
Girls smeared with colored powder react as they celebrate Holi, also known as the festival of colors, in the southern Indian city of Chennai, March 1, 2010. This tradition heralds the beginning of spring and is celebrated all over India. (Babu/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — Next to a railway line in Okhla, a polluted industrial area in south Delhi, 20 young girls sit on the floor of a small brick shed and follow a simple math lesson that's being scribbled out on a small blackboard. In another corner of the room, toddlers crawl on mats as a young woman watches over them.

Welcome to Project Why, a 10-year-old organization started by Anouradha Bakshi to help educate India's poor because, she said, "It makes that little difference."

The girls in this after-school program are as old as 9 or 10 — they look younger due to malnutrition — and are in grades four or five in their regular government schools. Despite their age, they still don’t know basic math. The toddlers are their siblings, who the girls — if not being taught here — would be taking care of at home, while doing household chores instead of their homework.

That's because these girls are from the poorest urban families and their parents either work in sweatshops or as manual labor. Most, inevitably, have several children.

But here's the problem.

In what is still a deeply sexist India, girls have a difficult time getting an education. The sons of these workers — very much like the sons of their richer counterparts — are treated like kings, or in this case pauper-kings. They get the lion’s share of whatever little food and milk their parents can buy, while their sisters and mothers often go without. And they don’t have to take care of their siblings or do any housework or odd jobs.

The reasons undergirding this gender imbalance are complex and cut across economic, cultural and religious lines.

“Many girls don’t go to school because the toilets don’t have doors," Bakshi said, citing one example. “When they have their period there is no place to throw their sanitary napkin or even to change it because the bathrooms have no doors. They are afraid their uniforms will be bloodstained if they can’t change and so they stay at home. And when the girls say they don’t want to go to school the parents easily agree without questioning them as they would their sons,” she explained.