INDIA: Authorities in Mumbai pay girls to attend school

[MUMBAI, 28 april 2008] - Girls attending state-run schools in India's financial capital of Mumbai are ending the school year a little richer than they began it.

For each day a girl showed up in classes, city authorities are paying her 1 rupee - about 2 U.S. cents. Boys continue to take nothing home besides their homework.

The scheme has two aims. One is to improve unimpressive school-attendance rates. The other is part of a broader central government goal of empowering girls and women.

Indian wedding customs mean brides are usually handed over to their husband's family along with a hefty dowry, so families typically invest more in sons than in daughters - although the gap is far more pronounced in rural India than in Mumbai.

For Mumbai's schoolgirls the scheme sounds like easy money, but it seems not one of the 220,000 girls attending government schools in the city managed to hit the jackpot.

No top marks for attendance

"We are yet to find a girl who got 100 percent attendance," said S.S. Shinde, the city's joint municipal commissioner for education.

A glance at the register at the Bazaar Road Urdu-medium school in the Bandra neighbourhood shows that girls typically missed between 20 and 70 days in the last year.

The authorities are clearly not paying enough, reckoned Baig Noorjahan, the school principal. Nearby, girls in blue uniforms and pigtails squeezed against each other in a tight queue for their money. Boys jumped on top of desks, bhangra dancing.

"One rupee isn't very much," Noorjahan said. "The minimum should be five rupees."

She also could not understand why boys were not included in the scheme. Their attendance is even worse, she said.

"In Indian society, priority is to be given to the girl child," explained Shinde, echoing a central government mantra. He added in a low whisper that the money was partly intended to be spent on "napkins", referring to tampons and sanitary towels.

Overhauling the education system - and ensuring it includes girls - is a priority for India. The country's recent economic success has been powered in large part by the services industry, which is dependent on highly educated employees.

Attendance not the only problem

But pupil attendance is not the only problem in the education system. Teachers often fail to show up too, and many are poorly trained. Facilities are rarely more high-tech than a blackboard.

Millions of children have never even enrolled at a school in the first place. And even the most diligent of students are not always taught to aim high.

Ayesha Hanif, 13, is one of the Bazaar Road school's star pupils. She missed 12 days last year, mostly when she or relatives fell ill. Her mother says she can use her money to buy a dress, but Ayesha wants to put it towards next year's school fees.

She wants to be an air hostess when she grows up. Her teacher thinks this is much too ambitious.

"How can she dream about being an air hostess?" the teacher said, before pointing out that Ayesha's father is a mechanic and that her family is poor.

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