Quality, universal education is a fundamental right as well as a necessary component for achieving social and economic development in other spheres. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon noted that the persistence of high rates of global illiteracy “hobbles our efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals”.

On a global scale, increasing access to and quality of education and undoing illiteracy is essential to spurring development in other areas, from health to commerce. With the largest illiterate population in the world and more than the next eight countries combined  – including China, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – India is at the crux of this issue. The problem is particularly acute for women and girls with over 200 million illiterate women in India alone.

According to the World Bank, in 2010 India had the third highest number of out of school girls in the world with more than 3.7 million.

Getting these girls into school is crucial to India’s social and economic development and represents an opportunity with huge potential to yield positive impact in the world.

According to UNESCO, educating a girl dramatically reduces the chance that her child will die before age five. Furthermore, educated girls are likely to marry later and have fewer children, who in turn will be more likely to survive and be better nourished and educated. Educated girls are more productive at home and better paid in the workplace, and more able to participate in social, economic and political decision-making.

The World Bank has identified what it calls the “Girl Dividend”. It calculates that for each additional year of secondary school, a girl will increase her future income by 25 percent. On the other hand, lack of education, income disparities, and early pregnancy all translate into economic loss for countries such as India where adolescent pregnancy costs the country an estimated $383 billion in lifetime income. Eliminating the employment gap entirely has the potential to add $400 billion to India’s GDP.

The Indian government understands the challenge of universalizing education and raising the level of quality for all Indian children but the fact remains that there are substantial barriers to achieving higher levels of enrollment and improving learning outcomes, particularly for girls in rural areas. Educate Girls believes the problem is one of ownership. Communities do not feel that they own their schools and governments have no one pressuring them to make the needed improvements. While solving this will ultimately help solve the problems of education in India, cultural attitudes and the challenges of rural poverty represent the first barriers to getting more girls into school.

In Rajasthan, where Educate Girls works, girl’s education takes a backseat to family responsibilities and cultural norms. Lack of experience with the education system on the part of parents prevents many girls from finishing their studies. Only one in 100 girls in will reach grade 12. Many are married below the legal age and are forced to move to their husband’s homes once they reach puberty. Even for parents who would prefer to send their daughters to school, poverty and geography often get in the way.

In many cases, parents work as laborers or farmers and while girls may attend school for part of the year, their parents may take them out to watch siblings or help at harvest time. The problems of poverty are compounded by the fact that many parents have themselves not received an education and do not see the value of sending their daughters to school. In many cases, poor learning outcomes offer little incentive for doing so. Why send your daughter to school when she won’t learn anything anyway, or what she will learn will not help her in her future, or worse, make her less marriageable.

Cultural attitudes, traditions, and norms present a serious challenge that requires constant conversations and most powerfully, the example of community members who have received an education and are living its benefits. But problems of rural isolation, migratory lifestyles, and lack of infrastructure present additional challenges. In many cases, girls attend school until they reach puberty, but are then removed because of arranged marriage and fear for the girl’s safety. Many schools may not have separate toilets or clean drinking water, leading to concerns from parents about their daughter’s ability to maintain her dignity as well as her health.

Girls face kidnapping, sexual assault, wild animals, and a myriad of other challenges just to go to school yet they still want to go. With Educate Girl’s mentorship, they actively participate in coming up with solutions to these challenges and persuade their parents, and even parents of other girls, of the value of their education. Educate Girls is helping to give them a voice in their future and helping their families and communities to understand the value of education. But the real work is being done by the communities themselves where girls are becoming champions for their own futures and communities are learning to demand quality schools for all their children.

Educate Girls’ solution to the problem of girls education in this remote region rests on the backs of these communities. By mobilizing families and villages to take ownership of their schools and their children’s education, they are harnessing a powerful force for change and providing girls in Rajasthan with a chance to achieve their dreams.

Alex Mette is an LGT Venture Philanthropy iCats Fellow working with Educate Girls in Mumbai, India. To find out more about Educate Girls, visit http://educategirls.in/