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For a girl in rural India, education is a difficult pursuit

By Elizabeth Yuan
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(CNN) -- Anuradha Rathore knows of no women doctors in her native village or its surrounding area.

Among her 100 classmates at the Sampurnanand Medical College in Jodhpur, she is one of 30 females.

The 20-year-old medical student grew up in Kansera, a remote village in Rajasthan, India's largest state. At that time, children were able to go to school only up to the fifth year of primary school, Rathore said. "Nothing beyond that."

In the last couple of years, educational opportunities have improved there: A coed school now goes up to grade 8.

While India's economy booms, educational opportunities remain out of grasp for large numbers of rural poor, especially girls, according to international agencies and researchers.

Although government programs are in place to address education and poverty, they have failed to deliver on a large scale because of a lack of resources and accountability, a 2005 report by the Childhood Poverty Research and Policy Centre found.

In nine of India's 35 states and territories, illiteracy rates among women are 50 percent or higher, according to figures from the 2001 India census. By contrast, no state or territory has an illiteracy rate of 50 percent or higher among males.

Caste and geography also play a role in a child's access to education, international agencies and researchers report.

In recent weeks, the government has sought to alleviate economic disparities between rural and urban areas with a budget plan that would increase rural, health and education spending by $16.3 billion, nearly half -- $7.3 billion -- of which would go to education.

In Rathore's village, girls are not expected to get an education, and many end their schooling at grade 6 or 7, she said, referring to 12 to 14-year-olds.

"It is basically the old school of thought," Rathore said in a telephone interview from Jodhpur, "that a girl is to be married and studying is a waste of money and resources, and there is no need for girls to study beyond a certain level."

Illiteracy is the outcome. In Rajasthan, 44 percent of all females are literate compared to 76 percent of males, the census found.

'Hardly any coed schools around'

That Rathore's village offered education only at the primary level is not unique, said Thrity Cawasji, a UNICEF assistant communication officer who translated the conversation between Rathore and CNN. Many villages, such as Kansera, only have primary schools, and children may have to travel far to go to secondary schools, she explained -- a situation that can render education difficult at best when walking is the only means of getting somewhere.

Other factors that contribute to attrition in secondary school, particularly among girls, are school fees, child marriages, a shortage of teachers, inadequate toilet facilities -- a basic need, as girls reach menstrual age -- and the lack of support from parents and the community, Cawasji said.

School fees, which can range from 100-200 rupees (or US $2-$5) per month in rural areas, added onto the costs of books and possibly uniforms, can be costly for impoverished families with several children.

"If the family can't educate its children, the girls would be pulled out before the boys," said Cawasji, adding that girls are considered more valuable at home.

Many parents want to keep boys and girls separate in schools beginning at the intermediate education level, says Shrimohan Arora, school manager at the Amar Chand Kanya Intermediate College for girls in Atrauli, Uttar Pradesh state.

The alternative might be no school for girls, Arora acknowledged, adding that many parents want their daughters to attend Amar Chand Kanya.

Even if the parents didn't care about girls mixing with boys, obstacles would remain for the teenage girl, Arora said.

"For intermediate education, there are hardly any coed schools around," Arora said. "For boys, there are many schools." The closest school for girls only recently opened and is 10 kilometers (6 miles) away, he added.

Conditions at Amar Chand Kanya are basic. Some classroom desks and seats consist of nothing more than two wooden planks. The main gathering space has long been the school's courtyard. Three water pumps and 10 toilets serve 800 girls.

"I don't find any complaints," he said. The most urgent issue he faces is having enough teachers to serve the students. He's got 20 teachers, 14 rooms and an average classroom with 50-60 students in it.

Thanks to a local son's family, the school received a sink area along with a new space for a lecture room/assembly hall, a library that replaces what has been described as a closet -- and a computer lab with six planned computers.

"If girls take interest, and we find more girls want education in computers, we'll add more," Arora said.

Few role models

Rathore, the second-year medical student, suffers from polio, which she contracted as a toddler, according to UNICEF.

Rathore's parents believed that if she were disabled and uneducated, she'd be in a very difficult situation, she explained. "They thought it necessary to get an education to overcome that shortcoming," she said.

She studied up to grade 2 in Kansera before her mother decided the family should move to Jaipur, the state capital, where her father was working, to continue her studies.

Rathore's parents were "different," she admitted, and relatives also helped. Back in Kansera, most girls her age are now married. That is not the case in Jaipur, she said, adding that there she found equal opportunity for boys and girls, enabling her to pursue her education.

Rathore never had role models. But she's been chosen as one of 15 "Girl Stars" in an India-wide campaign that's using 15 films, books and posters to celebrate girls' education and what females can do. In short, to create female "icons" of everyday women and girls, according to Lisa Heydlauff, founder and director of "Going to School," the non-profit group behind the project, which is funded by UNICEF.

"It's very difficult in India for someone from an underprivileged background to become a medical student, and her disability didn't hold her back," Heydlauff said.

That Rathore failed in her first attempt to enter medical school -- and tried again, despite financial difficulties -- was significant, Heydlauff added.

"That her entire family came behind her as a girl and believed that as a girl she could do this is also quite incredible."

Rathore's desire is to work with the government and serve as a doctor at the village level. Not necessarily in her own village of Kansera, she said, but "any village."


Anuradha Rathore grew up in Kansera, Rajasthan, where education was limited to a primary school.



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