Afsana is 16 and has just heard she has passed grade nine of her secondary school. This is cause for celebration because she is the first female from the Indian village of Mehluka to achieve this level of education.
"My favourite subjects are science and math," she says. "I hope to graduate and become a teacher one day".
Her village lies in the Mewat region of the Northern state of Haryana. Entirely rural, the people of Mewat lead a modest existence, making a living by farming the land for wheat and mustard. The female literacy rate is 37% since it is traditional for girls to drop out of school at age 11.
Most of Mewat's villages have primary schools but few offer a secondary education. To continue studying, children often have to travel several kilometres to reach a high school. And here is where the problem lies: parents in these conservative communities do not permit their daughters to walk such distances without a chaperone; fearing they could be attacked, or their reputation become tainted.
When White Lotus (http://whitelotustrust.org/index.html), an education NGO, began working in Mewat five years ago, it aimed to tackle this problem by launching its "Blossom Bus" service to transport girls to high school.
Upon hearing about the bus, Afsana immediately applied to become one of its passengers.
Afsana. Photo by White Lotus
"Parents think that their daughter's reputation could be questioned if she is out by herself," says Glenn Fawcett, the director of White Lotus. "But security also is an issue. It is common for girls to be harassed by groups of boys. There have also been a few instances of rape."
Now demand for the service is unprecedentedly high. Parents have become excited for their daughters to be educated since they see the benefits of her becoming economically capable. These benefits are well documented - UNICEF estimates that every additional year of primary school boosts a girl's eventual wage by 10 to 20%, and each year of secondary school by 15 to 25%.
Life in Mewat is also changing in a number of other ways. For instance, Afsana's two older sisters were married at 14 and 15, but school means that she will not meet the same destiny of becoming a child bride.
"It used to be common for our children to be married by age 14," explains her father, Mohammad. "Even though we are illiterate we still understand the value of an education. We want her to complete her studies before getting married." More than 40% of the world's child marriages take place in India, though the legal age to wed is 18.
Every year that Afsana is not married is also an extra year that she is not childbearing. An estimated 14 million adolescents between 15 and 19 give birth each year around the globe. According to the United Nations Population Fund, girls in this age group are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as women in their twenties. They are also less likely to be aware of disease prevention or have their children immunised.
When Afsana eventually does get married she is more likely to partner with an educated man. "This isn't just in Mewat, this is a national scenario," notes Fawcett. "The value of a female's education is now being considered in the marriage." He adds that as a wage earner, she will be more empowered and also less at risk of domestic violence than her illiterate peers.
Afsana and family. Photo by White Lotus
Poor education is a nationwide problem for boys as well as girls. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) 45 million Indian children of school-age are employed, and 13 million of these work in hazardous industries. India introduced the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) in 2010 in an attempt to combat its education problems. In theory it facilitates the school attendance of every child and provides financial provisions to the poor to buy uniforms, books and other requirements.
While its success is yet to be proven, the RTE did highlight that the state government was wrongfully charging school fees in Mewat. The parents are largely illiterate and therefore vulnerable to this kind of corruption. On their behalf, White Lotus filed a Public Interest Litigation and the parents were recently refunded the equivalent of US$3.2 million.
Once the population of Mewat becomes better educated it is thought that they will be less politically pliable and better equipped to hold their government to account. They will be able to demand improvements the services and jobs available, taking development into their own hands.
At present, the future is uncertain for the girls on the school bus. They are only starting to think about plans for after high school. Many, like Afsana, want to become teachers. A lucky few may be able to attend the teacher training colleges that are outside of Mewat in other areas of Haryana State.
"There are industrialised areas in neighbouring regions with many job opportunities, but not in Mewat," says Fawcett. "Miracles don't happen overnight, but soon the youth of this area will be able to voice their needs to the people that are able to do something about it. There will be gradual changes, and this is where development comes from."