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Sisters in the desert

Teenage girls from the UK learned first hand what it's like to yearn to go to school when they met their peers on the dusty plains of Rajasthan. Adi Bloom reports

Agroup of women stiffen. Their voices drop and their body language becomes muted. One of the older women, a baby at her breast, pulls her headscarf across her face. Her 13-year-old daughter drops her head to her chest.

The cause of the conversational lull is an old man in traditional loin cloth and dusty white turban. Sitting opposite the women, he gazes through large, Coke-bottle glasses over the sandy courtyard. This is rural Rajasthan, north-west India. In the mud-hut villages of this vast desert state, patriarchy prevails. Women marry before puberty and move to their in-laws' house in their late teens. Once there, they cover their faces with a chiffon headscarf, speak only when spoken to, and very rarely in front of male relatives.

With her grandfather so near, 13-year-old Chandni Birat is hesitant in speaking about the education she will begin in March. "I'm not afraid," she whispers. "I want to learn, so I won't be sad to be away from my parents. I want to be able to read books and newspapers. Life will be much better once I'm educated."

At 11, Chandni married a man she had never met, and her life experience is limited. She lives with her parents and grandparents in a walled compound of whitewashed, thatch-roofed huts, and leaves only to run messages to her uncle's hut nearby. She spends her days fetching and carrying, helping her mother with chores. But soon she will be among local girls, taking part in an education scheme run by the charity Save the Children.

In this six-month residential course, girls receive five years' schooling through intensive classes. The aim is to redress an imbalance. Two-thirds of the 25 million children not in primary school in 2003 were girls.

Along with basic literacy and maths, girls learn tailoring and household skills. They also learn essential health, looking at prevention of disease and infection.

Over on the other side of the village is another set of teenage girls.

They, too, have moved far from familiar territory to learn. But, unlike the first group, they do not shrink from passing listeners.

Just two days ago, these girls arrived in India's stark desert plains from the lush surroundings of Stroud high school, in Gloucestershire. They are the winnersof a competition run by the youth organisation Giving Nation. In exchange for making a video diary outlining how they raised pound;11,500 to build a school and health centre in the Philippines, eight pupils won a two-week trip to see Save the Children's crammer school for girls in the tiny village of Mukam.

Together with six Indian pupils, they are staying in dorms beside the school. The rooms are small, cold, stone cells. There are squat-style Indian toilets, and the washing facilities comprise some cold-water taps and a few buckets.

At intervals, wild cows stroll into the compound, before being chased out.

"I live on a farm, so I'm used to chasing cows," says 14-year-old pupil Athene Whittaker. "Cows are the same everywhere - laid-back and stupid."

Across the courtyard, a 17-year-old with short blonde pigtails strums a ukulele. A younger girl joins her, shaking her wet hair. "I think I've got the hang of the loos," she says. "You have to take one leg out of your trousers and twist them round. And I'm getting used to the cold showers. I rinse my hair in cold water anyway, to make it shiny."

The aim of the visit is partly for the British and Indian girls to work together, overcome language barriers and produce a traditional Rajasthani puppet show, but also for the Stroud pupils to understand something of the life of a village girl learning to write her name for the first time.

Putting down her ukulele, 17-year-old Abby Hunt muses: "We're quite lazy.

You don't appreciate how much there is to do, and we take leisure for granted. People here are much more self-sufficient."

But the British girls are not the only ones grappling with alien cultures.

A camel-cart ride to the centre of the village sees them engulfed by elders in coloured turbans. On the fringes, women with vivid red scarves over their faces and dusty, wide-eyed children crane for a better look. One man studies the girls, then poses the question on everybody's lips: "Why is your skin so white?"

For many village elders, the arrival of the white girls confirms the scale of the decision to educate girls.

"Of course changes will happen," says Chandni's bespectacled grandfather, Magharam Meghwal. "They are already happening - you have come."

It was his decision to send his grand-daughter to school, breaking with a family habit that left him and his children illiterate. "It's a handicap to be uneducated," he says. "I just use my thumbprint instead of a signature.

Now everybody's getting educated. I'm not sure how this will impact on village rituals, but that doesn't worry me. Times have changed. Society will also change."

But not all the villagers have been so open-minded. Changing entrenched opinions has not been easy. To persuade locals of the benefits of educating girls, Save the Children has sent volunteers to build a rapport with parents and villagers.

"Parents don't want their daughters to have jobs, and they think getting a job is the objective of education," says Ghanshyam Jethwa, the charity's zonal director. "We have to persuade them that we're giving girls life skills. We're teaching them how to bring up children and how to prevent diseases. There are group discussions to give them confidence. It's enriching the traditional system, rather than destroying it."

The six Indian girls who share their dormitory with the Stroud pupils are a dancing, singing, giggling embodiment of the school's confidence training.

On a henna-painting evening, the Indian pupils demonstrate their craft on eager English hands. Krishna Nahi Chahaliya, 12, daubs a white foot with the word "foot". Stifling laughter, she adds the more surreal "mango" and "apple".

Krishna completed her schooling in January this year and is already reaping rewards. Her brothers used to tease her and yell "Hey you" to get her attention. Now, she is allowed to join in with their conversations and use their school books to study at home. They even call her "Karishma" after the glamorous Bollywood star, Karishma Kapoor. She is irresistibly child-like, but her months at school have also brought a new maturity and she has begun to reflect on her future.

"I'll get married because my parents want it," she says. "But I won't put on a veil. I want to be a policewoman. Near where my sister lives, there were a number of rapes. Then a lady police officer took charge and things changed. I want to be like her, and take care of people. Education can empower you."

The girls also hope to redress perceived injustices in society. For Chagni Meghwal, who went to the crammer school in 2000, education has bred teenage rebellion.

"Children can rebel and not get married early," she says. "But their parents won't agree with it because it's a part of their culture. I will make sure my own children don't get married until they're able to understand the importance of marriage."

Stroud pupil Hannah Stephens, 15, is moved to tears. "These situations don't pop up in our everyday lives," she says. "You want someone to explain how you can be lawfully bound to someone you've never met. It's terrifying."

Angie Zukowski, the teacher who has travelled with the Stroud girls, tries to comfort her. Together, they plan ways in which the two schools can continue to work together. "This has certainly raised the girls' social conscience," Ms Zukowski says. "They want to buy a computer for the Indian girls, and maybe bring them over to England. They can't just sit back and forget it all."

For Hannah, the computer idea is a way to maintain links with the Indian girls, and to help with their broader education.

"They're just expected to raise a family without education," she says. "If I knew that all I'd do is grow up, look after children and clean the house, I wouldn't be excited about my future. Education makes a world of difference."

But the reality is not a series of clear-cut changes. Since her six months at school, Chagni has struggled to create the life she believes she deserves.

She was married at 10 to a man she sees as "unemployed and worthless". Her deeply cracked palms testify to days spent herding goats and collecting cow dung for fuel.

"My community opposes girls moving ahead in education," she says. "I'm trying to make them realise what women can achieve, but they always say no.

They don't let me into village government meetings. They say I'm irrelevant. But I will keep trying. I'm not going to let this happen to my children."

Strolling hand-in-hand with Krishna, Athene Whittaker has no such notion of future generations. For her, life is the here and now. "There are peacocks in the village," she says. "I didn't know you got them in the desert.

"The Indian girls have taught us stuff, and we've taught them stuff. I think of them as my friends now. I'll be sorry to leave them. But the first thing I'll do when I get home is have a bar of chocolate."

This month Save the Children is launching a Girls Into Schools campaign to promote greater educational opportunities for all girls. To see how you can get your school involved see Giving Nation:

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