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Ruby Khatoon’s experience is common for many young women in Bihar, India’s poorest state: Her father didn’t allow her to go to school because the 50 cents she earned each day making incense was too valuable. At age 15, she didn’t even know the alphabet. Her neighbor Nazia Hassan, 16, dropped out of school in fifth grade because her parents couldn’t afford to buy her a school uniform.

In the slum where the Ruby and Nazia grew up on the outskirts of Patna, Bihar’s sprawling capital city, girls often spend their childhoods working at home making sandalwood incense, sewing saris, or helping raise younger children. Education is not a priority.

As a result, female literacy in Bihar is only slightly more than 50 percent, one of the worst rates in the country. Literacy levels and educational attainment for women in India have improved in recent years, but India continues to rank low on international education and empowerment measures for women. On the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index, India ranked 112 out of 134 countries in 2010. The gap between the percentage of girls and boys who reach high school is shrinking, but it’s still wide. About 40 percent of girls did so in 2006 according to an analysis by the World Bank, compared to about half of boys.

Lessons From Abroad

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The problem is particularly acute in India’s most populous and poorest states, including Bihar. In recent years, the Indian government has begun a push to improve the education statistics for girls in poor and rural areas. And in Bihar, the state government has made improving educational prospects for young women a new focus, hoping this effort will help alleviate the state’s endemic poverty. One state education official even declared his government is undergoing a “feminist” makeover.

“If women are educated, they become economically independent,” says Raghu Bansh Kumar, deputy director of higher education in Bihar. “And the government of Bihar wants them to be economically independent.”

The Bihar government is pouring money into projects like giving girls bicycles to help them get to school safely. Nidan, an NGO that gets support from the government, is targeting the neighborhood where Ruby Khatoon and Nazia Hassan live. The organization has set up learning centers staffed by local residents and college students that supplement the education provided by government schools.

Nazia and her 14-year-old sister, Tazia, spend their days learning to write in English, Hindi and Urdu with much younger children, but they are determined to complete their education.

“No one will value you if you’re not educated,” Nazia says.

Ruby still makes sandalwood incense at home, but she also attends training classes where she is learning to do embroidery and, more importantly, how to read and write. She has decided that someday, she might even to go to college, an unthinkable option before.

But even as more school doors are opened to poor children, especially girls, they still face huge obstacles to reaching their full academic potential. Teachers in poor areas are often absent. Rickety school buildings with thatch roofs collapse in the monsoon rains. Some schools still lack toilets for girls.

“I think India’s main problem is the dismal quality of education, particularly for poorer children in the public sector,” says Lant Pritchett, an international development professor at Harvard University. “A focus on getting girls into schools by inducements like bicycles obviously isn’t going to do anything about that.”

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