03/14/2011 07:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Prevent Child Marriage Through Education

Imagine: in your hometown, only three in 100 girls ever learn to read. Female students in high school are a rarity, and a girl's reputation is so fragile that she is rarely permitted to venture beyond her village unescorted -- not even to go to school. It may sound unfathomable, yet this is the universal reality for the young women living in Mewat, Haryana, a rural part of northern India where tradition dictates that a teenage girl's "marriage-ability" and manual labor take precedence over her human rights.

International nonprofit Lotus Outreach has worked with locals in Mewat since 2007 to implement the Lotus Education as a Right Network (LEARN) project. When officers pushed the issue of female attendance, the indigenous Muslim Meo tribe showed great hesitation to let young girls travel alone to reach schools in neighboring villages. But in 2010, Lotus Outreach found a simple yet effective solution: trusted local owners of minivans were hired to safely chaperone village girls to school each day in a new project called the Blossom Bus.

"The improvements LEARN officers have brought to schools were instrumental in convincing these families to take a leap of faith and break with social conventions by sending their adolescent girls to available schools," says Glenn Fawcett, Lotus Outreach Executive Director of Field Operations. "Our first three buses were immediately fully booked and the waiting list is growing every day."

Mewat's misfortunes clash sharply with the surrounding areas. The capital city of New Delhi -- with its shopping malls and thriving commercial activity -- is only two hours away. Yet here houses are made of animal dung, water buffalo roam into school yards, and electricity is a rarity. With a female literacy rate of 3 percent, Mewat ranks among the most regressive districts in terms of girls' education in all of India.

In Mewat, the immediate resource gap occurs in the form of transportation. Because few villages have secondary schools and allowing a girl to travel alone is widely believed to be imprudent by the pious Meos, female education typically ends at the primary level. This low ceiling feeds into a downward spiral for the female population by diminishing the return on a girl's schooling, and increasing the impetus to keep her at home, at work in the fields or marry her off to another provider.

In the three years LEARN officers have worked in the district they have found that given the option, many Meos would happily see their daughters advance in the formal education system. Since the launch of the Blossom Bus last spring, the sight of chattering school girls in bright pink headscarves stepping off one of the white mini-buses after school is a common sight.

Thirteen year-old Murshida, along with three of her sisters (ages 15, 14 and 12), were recently selected for the project. "My two eldest sisters stopped going to school after the 5th grade and were married at 14 and 15," Murshida says. "I wanted to study further after I passed grade five two years ago, but was refused by my father who was planning to marry me off." When LEARN Officer Suraj Kumar approached her mother about sending her and her sisters back to school, Murshida's heart leaped. Her marriage hadn't yet taken place -- there was still time to take another path.

Suraj proposed supervised transportation, even allowing for one person from the family to serve as the chaperone. After discussing the idea with the girls' parents, Suraj was able to secure their consent and now all four girls are back in school. "That was the most memorable day for the four of us," Murshida says. "Now we will not be pushed to marry before we turn 18."

By demonstrating that with a little attention and effort a few kilometers need not stand in the way of female empowerment, Lotus Outreach intends to spark a broad movement favoring girls' education in Mewat. Today, 12 vans in full-time operation keep 50 ambitious young women on track to complete high school. The cost per girl is $150 per year.

The implications of continued female education are profound. The greater bargaining power of an educated woman is felt by the entire household, since women are estimated to invest twice as much in their families compared to men. Moreover, educated women delay childbearing, space pregnancies, and raise healthier and better-educated children. The Blossom Bus aims to lead the way in reinstating female education as a norm rather than an anomaly.

Lotus Outreach is a California-based 501(c)(3) dedicated to ensuring the education, health and safety of vulnerable women and children in the developing world. The Blossom Bus is one of several successful projects it operates in Asia today.

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