AT the edge of the wide green valley of Katmandu, Nepal, the village of Seelapayla sits atop one of the many emerald hills. Behind it, the hills rise higher, covered with dense, dark forest. On the flat land, rice paddies glisten in the sun. The houses in Seelapayla are of baked mud bricks, trimmed with intricately carved woodwork. There is no electricity in the village, no plumbing. When women venture behind their houses after dark to relieve themselves, they can fall prey to snakes or even tigers.Skip to next paragraph
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The village school is decorated with particularly beautiful wood carving, though its cracked walls sag. On a sunny, blustery afternoon, seven teachers -- all male -- lounge on the grass outside the school.
``There are twice as many boys in this school as girls,'' one teacher explains.
Who is smarter?
Why don't more girls go to school?
``Girls have to do the housework. And besides, there are more boys than girls in this village.''
Why are there more boys?
Several teachers laugh. ``In Nepalese culture,'' says one, ``people like boys better than girls.'' We pause at the implications of this remark.
``Girls are lucky to go to school at all,'' continues the first teacher. ``In the past, girls were not sent to school. They have to look after the house, the children, the cattle -- everything.''
Another teacher speaks up. ``If you give a girl education, what is it for? When she marries, she will go to another person's house. Her education is of no use to her parents.''
``There is a library here,'' says another teacher, a lanky young man with a sleepy expression, ``but if the girls go and read there, people speak ill of them. People talk about the girls, and the parents don't like it. They say the girls go there to talk with boys, and that they'll go astray. So the girls don't go to the library.''
The lady from Katmandu, who is acting as interpreter, explains, a bit defensively, that despite these prejudices, parents are beginning to see a certain value in giving their daughters an education.
``Things are changing,'' she says. ``Parents see that even after marriage some girls are in trouble, and if they have some education they can earn their own living. Some husbands are not good, they don't look after their wives and children. Some are drunkards, like my husband. Women have to be able to support themselves. That is why they now need an education.'' The gender gap in education
The female literacy rate for Nepal is among the very lowest in the world. Statistics show that 95 percent of Nepalese women are illiterate, compared with 67 percent of the men.
The developing country in Asia with the highest literacy rate both for men and women is Thailand: Illiteracy rates there, as of 1981-81 were 30 percent for women and 13 percent for men. This contrasts with figures for Egypt of 71 percent illiteracy for women and 43 percent for men, and with those for Bolivia at 49 percent illiteracy for women and 25 percent for men.
On a regional basis, male literacy is estimated at 98 percent in developed countries and 52 percent in developing countries. The gap for females is even greater: In the developed countries, 97 percent of women are literate, whereas in the developing world, the average female literacy rate is only 32 percent.
The traditional obstacles to sending girls to school -- the need to keep them working at home and the danger that they will meet boys and ``go astray'' -- are still factors in some rural areas of Africa and Asia, though they are disappearing. Only among the relatively tiny urban middle classes is education for girls universally taken for granted. Learning is for earning