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Free bicycles help keep Indian girls in school

Free bicycles help keep Indian girls in school under a new state government program designed to help girls in Bihar, one of India's poorest states, where the female literacy rate of 53 percent is more than 20 points below that of its men.

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The program has also raised the status of girls, who are often seen as a burden in son-obsessed India, where parents have to pay such hefty dowries to marry off their daughters that the family is often indebted for decades.

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Now, girls are bringing an asset to the family, Singh said.

Mohammed Jalaluddin, who runs a tea stall in Rampur Singhara, says his daughter's bike is used by the entire family.

Nizhat Parveen, his 16-year-old daughter, drops her brother at his school on the way to hers. When she returns, the family uses the bicycle for chores, from shopping for groceries to making food deliveries from the tea shop.

Bihar is also giving free school uniforms to girls to keep them in school. The bike grant money is put into a joint bank account in the names of the student and her parents, and school administrators monitor whether the girls buy bicycles and use them, or if the bike is sold and the girl ends up leaving school, Singh said. But mostly, the program operates on the honor system.

While corruption and fraudulent use of state money is rife in India, the Bihar government reports misuse of the bicycle funds is 1 percent.

The results from Bihar were so encouraging that the program has been adopted by the neighboring states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Rajasthan, another state with low female literacy rates, has launched a free bicycle program for girls in secondary and high school.

The federal government is exploring a plan to give bicycles to Muslim girls as their dropout rate is worse than that of other communities.

The bicycle program "has worked very well," says Syeda Hameed, a member of India's powerful Planning Commission body.

Hameed said the body is also looking at other factors that affect school attendance by girls in the higher classes, such as the lack of toilets in schools.

In poor families, older girls also leave school to take care of younger siblings while parents work. "This is a persistent problem which tends to push up dropout rates and is a matter of concern," Hameed said.

But with the bicycle program gaining in popularity, authorities are tightening conditions, demanding students have 75 percent attendance to "earn" their uniforms and the bicycle.

For high school student Parveen, her proudest possession, the free bicycle, has allowed her to dream of even greater things.

"Even college doesn't seem far away now," she says.

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