The girl, child of a lesser god

 Carte Blanch- Anup Kumar Dutta

The reality of gender discrimination against women, at infant, children and adult levels, is one of the all too many clouds which darken the touted image of “India Shining.” Our society since time immemorial has been a male-dominated one.

Despite endeavours of the state, primarily legalistic, as also of a pro-active judiciary and efforts of reformist segments within society, to bring about gender equality not much of a dent has been made in an age-old mindset. The societal structure, prevalent customs, ethical mores related to issues such as marriage, the economic mechanism — everything continues to be designed to ensure the subservience of women.

Thus, one need not be surprised that the latest data released by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) for 100 countries over 40 years starkly reveals the truth that an Indian girl is 75 per cent more likely to die between one and five years than an Indian boy, thereby making our country earn the dubious distinction of having the highest gender differential in the world.

For what it is worth, newly released data from the Union home ministry has indicated a drop in infant mortality rate (IMR) in India to a national average of 47 to every 1,000 births, though all states have not been able to maintain this.

While Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh record the highest infant mortality rate in the country, states like Assam with 58 and Bihar with 48 per 1,000 have yet to catch up. It needs to be noted that the welcome decline in infant (0-1 years) and child (1-5 years) mortality is a global phenomenon and brought about by improved medical facilities and greater hygienic awareness.

The disturbing factor is that, according to the UN-DESA, while across the world there has simultaneously been a drop in female infant and child mortality than in male, in India such a trend has not been maintained. It is cold comfort that India’s economic rival China is the only other country in the world which shows a similar negative trend against the girl child. In the developing world as a whole there are 122 male infant deaths against every 100 female infant deaths, but in China, the figure is 76 male infant deaths against 100 female infant deaths.

India, with 97 male infant mortality and 56 male child mortality against every 100 female infant and child mortality fares somewhat better, but not enough for a nation which aspires towards a truly gender equal society. Even our smaller neighbours with differences in demographic and religious characteristics have far more positive figures for female mortality than us.

In Pakistan, for example, despite that nation being perceived by the West as a country where women do not enjoy status equal to men, the ratio of male infant mortality is 120 and male child mortality 100 compared to every 100 female infant and child mortality. Sri Lanka, with a ratio of 125 male infant mortality and 111 male child mortality, fares even better.

It has been an established biological fact that the female of the species is far hardier and better adapted to survive than the male. Thus, given equal familial and societal importance and share in the resources, logic dictates that the girl child should be more likely to survive between the age of one and five than the boy child. This is a clear indication that broadly in India, the girl, child of a lesser god, from an early age confronts deprivation in every sphere, whether it is in nutrition, education, healthcare. To compound matters, discrimination, in fact, begins at the very pre-natal stage, especially in North India, where the blight of female foeticide even today remains endemic in spite of stringent laws being enacted against it.

Equally unfortunately, sex selection  is not confined only to the illiterate and underprivileged section of society, but is also prevalent among the educated and more affluent urban middle-class. A segment of the medical fraternity has conspired to ensure that pre-natal, sex-selective abortion is easily available notwithstanding laws enacted to combat it. For instance, medically diagnosed possible danger to a mother at childbirth is offered as a convenient alibi for sex-selective abortions, something that the authorities are incapable of combating legally. If we take into account the number of unregistered sex-selective abortions  in the country, the data offered in the UN-DESA report on India regarding female infant mortality would be far worse!

A similar, pagan mindset also ensures that girls are discriminated against in the post-natal phase in matters of nutrition and healthcare, though statistics point to the prevalence of such a bias more among the underprivileged segment of Indian society. Thus, a sustained campaign against  sex selection is not the only solution towards turning the statistics in favour of a girl child. The issue is far more complicated than it may appear, for there are too many ramifications — social, physiological, psychological and so on — for a simplistic appraisal or endeavour to suggest measures for redress.

However, one of the facets stands out and must be the focus of attention. As in most other aspects of our society, the economic factor lies at the core of discrimination against the girl child. This is made more evident by the relative absence of gender discrimination amongst tribal communities, wherein women contribute equally as men in the familial economic mechanism and are thereby invested with equal status. In an area like the Northeast, where tribal communities predominate, the respect given to women is traditional and is reflected in lower girl infant and child mortality rate as compared to those of a boy. It hardly needs to be pointed out that in some communities in this region the matriarchal system prevails, which invests women with an importance that societies in other parts of India might find difficult to envisage.

On the other hand, the girl child is conceived to be an economic burden in many parts of India, particularly in the northern states, where gender discrimination is blatantly evident. Being physically weaker, girls are seen to be less adapted for tasks needing brawn, which is an integral requirement for useful contribution in communities devoted mainly to agriculture. The need to find suitable life mates for daughters in a system where arranged marriage is the custom, as also the need to raise dowry, adds to the so called “burden” on parents even amongst the urban middle-class.

The key to bringing about a change in perception is, therefore, initiation of means of empowerment of a girl child where she is given a level playing field and enabled to contribute to familial economy. Legislations by themselves not being enough, providing her with resources, particularly in the spheres of education and job opportunities is an essential requirement. Crass as it may sound, there has to be an endeavour to transform a girl into an economic asset rather than a burden if she is to be raised from her current status as a child of a lesser god.

Much progress has been achieved in this direction, but far more has to be done not only by the government, but also by enlightened sections in society. The media has an enormous role to play, as do non-government organisations. It is ironic indeed that a nation in which the female principle has traditionally been revered invests lesser importance to a girl child in actual practice. The very fact that, six decades after Independence, our legislators remain chary about reserving seats for women in the political arena is a telling indicator of the miles we have yet to travel towards eradicating gender discrimination in our country


Balancing the Gender Skew in India: A New Name, A New Beginning?

Indian girls, shedding names like “Nakusa” or “Nakushi” which mean “unwanted” in Hindi, hold up their name change certificates during a ceremony in Satara, 250 kms from Mumbai,

by Neeta Lal
In an innovative bid to fight gender discrimination, Satara district in India’s western state of Maharashtra recently witnessed a minor revolution. Over 285 Indian girls named Nakhushi, ‘unwanted’ in Hindi, by their disenchanted parents were rechristened in a state-organized ceremony.

Trussed up in their Sunday best, the girls were all smiles amidst the pop of camera bulbs. “My friends will be calling me with my new name now. And that makes me very happy. My earlier name made me feel worthless,” 15-year-old Nakhushi, now renamed Muskaan or ‘a smile’, says into the TV camera.

• “Usual labour” Maharashtra, India. Photograph by Flickr user nvbr11 and used under a Creative Commons license. •
But will changing girls names combat their internalized sense of worthlessness and improve the status of women and girls in India?

India has never been a happy place for women. The World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Inequality Index (GII) places the country at 129 out of 146 countries, better only than Afghanistan in South Asia.

Gender bias in Indian society is blatant. Apart from the extreme practices of feticide, infanticide and honor killings, discrimination against Indian girls persists through parental prejudices, lack of educational opportunities, and unfair resource allocation.

The discrimination against the girl child manifests itself everywhere – even in educated, well-off households. A few years back I was shocked when one of my colleagues, a well-qualified woman in her thirties with two daughters, confided in me that she “got her baby dropped” when she found out it was a girl. “I’ll keep getting pregnant until I have a boy. The baby will be born only once it’s confirmed that it’s a male,” she told me with finality.

Was she being coerced into this situation I asked her, concerned about the ease with which she narrated the episode to me. “Yes,” she replied. “My husband hinted that my mom-in-law is keen her son remarry if we can’t have a male heir.”

In the mid-1960s, sex-determination technology was introduced in India as a population control measure. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen famously wrote in 1990 of the 100 million missing women, especially in Asia, and of how these numbers “tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to excess mortality of women.”

The Prenatal Diagnostics Techniques (regulation and prevention of misuse) Act was enacted in 1994 and brought into operation in 1996. After over two decades, it seems little has changed. India’s latest Census figures reveal that the country’s male-female ratio is the worst since 1961 — just 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 102 to 106 boys should be born for every 100 girl children.

In Satara this equation is a grim 881 to 1,000 boys. For the northern state of Haryana, notorious for crimes against women, including honor killings, the picture is especially bleak – in Duleypur village, the sex ratio at birth is 400 females per 1,000 males.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that every day 7,000 fewer girls are born in India than should be. So where does the problem lie? According to a UNFPA population report released in October, an overwhelming majority of the 117 million ‘missing’ girls in Asia are from India and China. They are vanishing primarily due to the increased use of ultrasonography or ultrasound machines.

The moment the UN report came out radiologists in Mumbai were up in arms. “Ultrasound has been around for decades. If it’s such a widely used tool for sex determination then girls should have disappeared in larger numbers by now,” Indian Radiological & Imaging Association president Dr Jignesh Thakker told one Indian daily. The city’s radiologists are already fighting a bitter battle against the Maharashtra government’s recent directive that forbids the use of portable ultrasound machines for sex determination purposes.

Not that the national capital city of New Delhi fares any better. Mara Hvistendahl, the author of Unnatural Selection writes how it is a standard practice for doctors at All India Institute of Medical Sciences – a premier state-run hospital – to disclose the sex of the fetus to the moms-to-be and even help them abort it if they so desire.

“We need to amplify our voices about sonography’s misuse so that public opinion can be built up and stringent action is taken against the wrong doers,” says Pramila Kirk, an NGO worker. Kirk advises that if the state government makes software to keep track of all scans mandatory for ultrasound machines, it will dramatically augment the child-sex ratio.

Some doctors believe, however, that instead of spending about USD800 per machine on installing silent observer software, the sum should be invested in pro girl child policies. Experts add that the argument that prenatal diagnostic tests give women a ‘choice’ to select a child of the desired sex is specious. Women’s choices, especially in India’s patriarchal society, are determined by societal pressure to produce male heirs.

This means that four decades after the passage of the landmark Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act that legalized abortion in India, the legislation is being exploited to kill unborn daughters. The Lancet estimates that between three and six million girls have been aborted over the past decade. Sex selective abortion happens because sex determination tests have become a breeze. Woman simply walk into a shop and get the needed test done.

India’s Planning Commission, the country’s premier body that formulates policy, recently relaxed the ban on sex-selection tests in rural areas. At the same time, it is also in the midst of proposing a program to ‘adopt’ female fetuses and give incentives to families and health workers to deliver female babies.

People suspect there are other interests behind the Commission’s new proposal. According to human rights activist and lawyer Pramod Kamayani, “female feticide is organized murder. Parents do it because they want to get rid of daughters; the doctors do it for a quick buck and the government looks upon it as an effective and free population control method. With such a well-entrenched nexus in place, how can the situation be improved?”

Perhaps things can be improved by implementing imaginative public policies to set right the gender skew. Already, some state government schemes are providing incentives for parents to embrace girl children and make for more balanced birth rates. Measures like providing bicycles for school-going girls have proved to be efficacious in empowering the girl child.

While giving hundreds of nakhushis a new name is laudable, real transformation will come about only if, along with the name change, mindsets are changed too. Maharashtra is planning to reward couples whose third child is a girl by sponsoring her education and bestowing other financial rewards upon her. Hopefully this will truly lead to a new beginning.

Sarpanch puts an end to sex selection in a Rajasthan GP

P J Joychen in Jaipur,

Most politicians prefer to get elected from reserved constituencies/ wards as they are considered safe.
But this Dalit woman is different. She not
only contested from an unreserved ward, but  also emerged victorious.
Now, it does not surprise many  as to how she managed to win the seat. 

On becoming a sarpanch, she took up issues that have been long kept on the back burner in Rajasthan. She has become a role model for others by bringing the gender issues to the mainstream. She has addressed the crucial issue of sex selection, infant and maternal mortality and reproductive and child health by focusing on gender fostering.
Tara Devi is a household name in the region. Her leadership traits and dedication to her panchayat have impressed not only the local people but also the resear­chers and academics visiting the area for developmental studies.

At a recent workshop on “Strengthening Gender Response of Panchayats in Rajasthan: Successes and Challenges” in Jaipur, Tara Devi shared her experiences. Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) State Coordinator Krishan Tyagi says that he approached the gram pancha­yat and the Village Health and Sanitation Committee (VHSC)
to improve the situation and organised orientation and capacity building meetings for the panchayat members.

Tara Devi’s long-drawn-out struggle and success in achieving women’s empowerment to a considerable degree
are an inspiring saga for the marginalised Dalit communities. Her story proves that the Dalit women
panchayat functionaries can perform better than their male counterparts if given proper direction,
training and guidance.

Samerdha Nosera is among the 20 GPs in the district included by the Sangam Matri Mission Sansthan (SMMS) in a project for “Strengthening Gender Resp­onse of Panchayats in Rajasthan” (SGRPR). PRIA has initiated the ambitious project. The gender-specific data collected under the SGRPR shows that the major reasons for drop in child sex ratio are inadequate health facilities and negligence towards the female newborn. A survey in Samerdha Nosera revealed a ratio of 57:35 between the home deliveries and institutional deliveries, indicating that women do not find the latter attractive.

The village is situated in a remote area and does not have easy connectivity with the urban surroundings.
Lack of basic amenities like water, electricity and nutritious
food earlier made the conditions worse in the region.

During the orientation meetings, Tara Devi shot into the limelight as a result of her sincerity for bringing about a positive change in her village during the 10 years when she was elected as Sarpanch twice. By participating in the SGRPR, she has got the crucial handholding
support for her work.

Dalit woman Sarpanch has successfully utilised her knowledge by promoting and fostering gram sabha on gender issues. She has also received support from the women community-based organisations of the area and is mobilising the villagers with the support of these groups to participate in the gram sabha meetings.

Tara Devi’s sustained and consistent efforts made an impact on the local community and facilitated the process to incl­ude gender issues on the planning agenda. She also started regular inspections of the local health sub-centre which was earlier devoid of proper infrastructure, furniture, equipment, medicine, etc and constructed the new building by
involving VHSC members.

In yet another significant step, Tara Devi improved the condition of the anganwadi centre and made arrangements for water and power with the help of the SMMS. She visits the centre regularly and checks the quality of food served to children. The sarpanch has also taken steps to enhance the standard of girls’ education in the village and improve the arrangements for drinking water.

Depicting her concern over immunisation and health check-ups of pregnant women, Tara Devi makes arrangements for delivery and has organised several blood donation camps. She is accessible to the women in need and is available for any kind help. Recently, she saved an anaemic woman referred to the hospital by the sub-centre in a critical condition by arra­nging blood for her. She has invested Rs 47.15 lakhs in the Indira Awas Yojana and Rs 3.85 crore for construction works in the village and strengthened the gram sabha by ensuring people’s participation in the decision-making process.

Tyagi says that the sarpanch has ensu­red coordination among gram panchayat, gram sabha and the upper tier
of pancha­yat samiti.

As a result of Tara Devi’s sustained efforts, the child sex ratio has significantly improved in Samerdha Nosera with a recent survey revealing the figures of 1,014 females against 982 males. The instances of maternal and
infant mortality have come to an end and there is no case of girl child dropout from schools. Two new auxiliary nurse midwives appointed in the village now regularly visit the area. There is need to trust the abilities
of women belon­ging to marginalised communities and give them a little bit of support and opportunity.
With this appro­ach, a number of Tara Devi’s hidden behi­nd veils may appe­ar in the mainstream development
discourse and make a big difference, says Tyagi.

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