In Koliwara, a small village in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, teenage girls suddenly started dying for no apparent reason.
The young girls, all taken out of school and married off long before they reached the legally marriageable age of 18, began to die at an alarming rate. The epidemic affected only child brides, newly wed to men often considerably older than them.
Terrified by these events, villagers sought the advice of the local priest. After considerable deliberation, the priest concluded that the deaths were being caused by child marriage. Stop child marriage and send the girls to school, he said, and they would no longer die.
This is not a metaphor. But it might as well be. Go into a secondary classroom in a government school - the most basic of Indian schools - and what is immediately noticeable is how severely boys outnumber girls. While 81 per cent of Indian girls attend primary school, only 49 per cent make the move to secondary education, according to children's charity Unicef. The dropout rate for girls is even higher among disadvantaged social groups, such as Muslim, "untouchable" and tribal communities.
"There's a lot of repression that comes from the males in the home," says Anouradha Bakshi, of Indian education charity Project Why. "Even younger brothers start telling their sisters, `Don't do this, don't look out of the window, why are you talking to that man?' So, while there's more and more enrolment of girls now, their education still gets truncated."
The number of Indian girls enrolling in primary school has in fact increased dramatically over the past few years. In 2006, approximately 6 per cent of boys and 8 per cent of girls were out of school. By 2009, this had dropped to about 4 per cent of boys and just under 5 per cent of girls. The proportion has decreased further since the Indian government implemented its Right to Education Act in 2010, guaranteeing every child in the country the right to free schooling between the ages of 6 and 14.
But, by the time they reach eighth standard, at 14, girls have already begun to drop out of school. "Sometimes the grandparents will need to be looked after in the village. But the parents are working, so a 13- or 14- year-old girl will be sent to do that," Bakshi says. "Or, if guests are coming, girls will be the ones kept home to look after them.
"Girls are considered second-class citizens. They carry your bag to school for you. They get your dinner. The sexist attitude is ingrained in the way one is brought up here. When I had my second child, and she happened to be a girl, my in-laws, who are very well-educated people, were not very happy about it."
(As an aside, Bakshi mentions another potential reason that boys dominate the Indian classroom: the prevalence of sex-selective abortions. Even though it is now illegal in India to reveal the sex of a foetus before birth, doctors will, for the right price, find a way around the law. "If you say, `Come and see me on Wednesday', it's a girl; if you say `Friday' it's a boy," Bakshi explains. "So girls are handicapped from the start.")
Honour of the family
The decision to pull girls out of school can also be financial. Government schools can have classes of more than 100 students, many bringing sacks from home so that they do not have to sit on the bare concrete floor. Without after-school tutoring, few will actually learn enough to graduate. But such tutoring is expensive, and therefore reserved for the boys in the family.
In addition, education is free only up to the end of eighth standard. "At that point, girls have reached a mature age," says Siya Sabnis of charity Educate Girls. "The family is more inclined to make them help with the family income."
And then there are the child marriages. "For some reason, the honour of the family is often equated to the honour of the girl," Bakshi says. "So one way to ensure the honour of the family is to marry them off early."
In rural villages in particular, girls as young as 10 are married off. Sabnis says that 46 per cent of Indian girls are married before the legal age of 18. "Because of this, many parents want them to stay at home, taking care of the household or farmland chores, starting to learn how to be a wife," she says. "Then, once they're married, they're as good as a lost cause."
This is what happened in Koliwara. Many of the villagers are from the Dewasi caste, a nomadic community that traditionally herded cattle. Because their livelihood is dependent on the cattle, the community spends the monsoon months in the desert state of Rajasthan, before moving to greener, wetter states in the dry months. As a result, the villagers have been disinclined to educate their daughters, instead marrying them off early.
But another factor influenced the decision not to send the Koliwara girls to school. The nearest primary is a significant distance from the village, with no connecting road. Girls had to make a long and difficult journey on foot to attend school, and their parents were fearful that their honour might be compromised en route. Other parents chose to keep their daughters at home because the school was simply not set up to accommodate girls.
This is not uncommon: many Indian classrooms end up boy-dominated not because of external factors, but because the school buildings cannot adequately cater for any female students. "The schools don't have proper toilets, with doors," Bakshi says. "So, when girls attain puberty, they stop going. Or they don't go on certain days, when they have their menstruation."
In fact, only half of all Indian schools have separate girls' toilets. "If the school doesn't have toilets for girls, it doesn't matter what the teacher does in the classroom - the parents still aren't going to send their girls," Bakshi adds.
No sense of belonging
But the general inhospitality to girls stretches further than the school buildings. "In remote areas, there are very few female teachers," says Gitanjali Singh of Educate Girls. "One of the things that hinders girls from coming to school is that there are mostly male teachers."
Only 43 per cent of Indian teachers are female, according to Unicef research. But this figure drops even further in some of the country's poorest states. In the eastern state of Jharkhand, for example, 28 per cent of teachers are women. And in Tripura, on the border with Bangladesh, three-quarters of teachers are men. This, Singh says, further convinces parents of their belief that school is not an appropriate place for their daughters: "The community then feels that, if a daughter has problems at school, she won't be able to talk to someone. There won't be a female teacher to guide her in the way she needs to be guided."
Such imbalances are often self-perpetuating. Male teachers tend to default to workbooks and curriculum materials that appeal primarily to boys. And, as more and more girls drop out of school, those girls who remain have an increasing sense that school is not a place where they belong. "There's something within the curriculum that's perpetuating the idea that sons will have a career and girls will not," says Urmila Sarkar, chief of education for Unicef in India. "There's a shortage of role models or symbols for girls in the classroom materials."
Very little research has been conducted into the state of Indian secondary schools. The sector is, historically, the poorest and least-resourced in the education system. After Indian independence, in 1947, money was ploughed into universities; in the past 20 years, the focus has been on universal primary education. Two years ago, a campaign was launched for universal secondary education, too, but it remains embryonic.
"Watching girls drop out, boys get the message that's still prevalent in this country: that there's a preference for boys' education," Sarkar says. "We need to educate the boys that girls are equal partners and have equal rights. If you're in a class and it's dominated by boys, then it will take quite a lot of confidence for the girls that are there to speak out."
Today, girls are no longer dying in Koliwara. But something else has changed, too. No villagers marry off their daughters until they reach the legal age of 18. Nor do they seek underage brides for their sons from nearby villages. All 44 of Koliwara's school-aged girls are now in education.
And, across the country, government and charity schemes have sprung up to tackle the problem. But, Sarkar says, schemes are often local, and localised: they are tailored to the specific needs of one community. And there is little cooperation between government-run programmes and those set up by charities or social organisations, even though there is often considerable overlap between them.
Additionally, ostensibly helpful projects, such as girls-only classes or youth groups, often tackle the short-term problem without dealing with the underlying attitudes that created it.
"You have programmes that are bringing girls together - empowering them, giving them space to talk about their issues," Sarkar says. "At the same time, to really make an impact, girls and boys need to be interacting and understanding each other better. It's important to educate the men in the importance of girls' education and women's rights. But it's not happening. It's not happening enough."