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Father Vadakkumpadan believes San Joe Puram is one of the few institutions in India that offers an inclusive education — offering women with special needs opportunities to integrate eventually into the mainstream — and become agents of change and development. His goal is ambitious: San Joe Puram strives to free society from the bondage of caste and race and create an India where empowered rural women can become policy makers.

Such goals may sound utopian in a state such as Haryana, which has some 25 million people. According to the latest census data, from 2011, the state has just 879 women for every 1,000 men — the lowest such ratio in India, where the national average is 943.

Some activists point to the murder of infant girls for such low numbers. Father Vadakkumpadan described how one nun working as a nurse in a village dispensary saved an infant girl.

“The child’s grandmother took the baby in her hands and pretended to show affection. But as she was about to put the child down she tried to hit its head on a table. The alert sister held her hand underneath,” he says, adding that the sister told the woman she would adopt the child.

Sister Mancy Marotty, a member of the Kerala-based Preshitharam Sisters who serves San Joe Puram as a social worker, says many villagers consider daughters a burden as society requires the provision of a dowry at marriage. Women are also largely illiterate and confined, treated by their fathers and husbands as inferiors.

“They appear with faces covered even before the male members in the family. They need men’s approval to do anything,” says Sister Mancy.

While the literacy rate for men in Haryana is 86 percent, only 57 percent of women can read and write. The state also has the lowest enrollment of girls in school and the highest female dropout rate in India.

Father Theckanath says that he and the sisters have set out to counter this mindset by forming self-help groups for women.

“We realized real change would come only through women. If women are educated they will improve the family and encourage a daughter’s education.”

Over the past 18 years, San Joe Puram has managed to reach out to 20 surrounding villages and start more than 150 self-help groups. Linto Joseph, a social worker with San Joe Puram, claims such intervention has helped bridge the gaps in literacy and gender in those villages.

“Our works have created a desire among girls to learn more.” Yet, he says, it will take more time to embolden women to assert their full equality.

When Infant Jesus School first opened, only a few girls from the villages enrolled. Now, girls make up more than one third of the external students.

“People’s reluctance to spend money on a daughter’s education is slowly waning,” Mr. Joseph says.

The villages have also witnessed a revolution in sanitation. A lack of bathrooms leaves women vulnerable to sexual assault. Volunteers from San Joe Puram encouraged the women of one village to take charge, traveling with them to apply for funds for more modern facilities. “The result: permission for 78 new toilets,” says Mr. Joseph.

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