If someone brought up the topic of gender preference, do you react by saying, ‘Gender preference? Really? Isn’t it a thing of the past?’ Your reaction is probably due to the fact that you see around you more girls among top-ranking students; more women having jobs, access to education, money and resources; more women holding positions of authority and making strides in all fields. But, what about all those girls and women who didn’t even get a chance to live?
Although the twenty-first century India is highly educated and developing at a fast pace, there is still a higher preference for a male child. Perceived as the alpha, the protector and provider, sons are considered as assets whether for political, economic or ritual reasons while daughters are considered burdensome liabilities.
As of 2015, according to statisticstimes.com, among all countries, India ranked 192nd with a dismal sex ratio of 106.98, which means there were only 93.47 females for every 100 males. Again, according to an article in the Lancet (2011), research data implies that ‘in India about 400,000 sex-selective abortions have taken place annually in recent years’!
Here are a few reasons for gender preference in India - socio-cultural factors like dowry, wedding expenses, custom of gift-giving, inability of girls to take care of parents after marriage, domestic violence, ill treatment by husbands and in-laws, ill treatment on account of giving birth to a girl, and so on. This gender preference goes hand-in-hand with gender discrimination.
Forms of gender discrimination in India
Gender discrimination manifests in many forms in India, right from birth to adulthood.
Fewer months of breastfeeding, below par medical care, insufficient nutrition, lack of prenatal, natal and post-natal care result in girls being more susceptible to illness, having poor health and shorter lifespan.
In cities, women employees face the glass ceiling effect and disparities in pay. Their non-inclusion in the decision-making processes at almost every level is also a widespread phenomenon.
Due to the wide prevalence of the patriarchal social system, a lot of women are still deprived of the right to own ancestral property, which is mostly given to the male child.
Not just an Indian phenomenon
While India shows a high degree of gender inequality or gender discrimination, it isn’t the only country where this phenomenon exists. In many countries around the world women are fighting for the right to vote, to choose what they wish to wear (if you remember the Burkini ban) and to own property, among others.
Horrific practices like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and trafficking are highly prevalent in parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America, the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.
Gender-based violence and honour killings are a global pandemic, and in some countries, women and girls fail to get even minimum protection against these horrific practices.
Amartya Sen spoke about the ‘missing women’, bringing to light the practice of female infanticide and female foeticide, which doesn’t give the girl a chance to even be born.
So, how can we change this scenario, which doesn’t favour the female child?
Since change begins at home, parents are the best agents of change. We can begin by looking at the positives of having a girl in the family and her contribution to the society.
Women are -
Pillars of the future: Just as we say that the youth of today are the citizens of tomorrow, so is the same with our girls. They are the women of tomorrow. If we want to empower them, we must reduce inequality and gender gaps, and create strong women leaders. We have to let them live today and raise them to be those leaders of equality and development.
Change-makers: Brigham Young once said, “You educate a man, you educate a man. You educate a woman, you educate a generation.” Women are naturally more social and thus more inclined to help those around them. By bringing up their daughter with the right values and education, parents can kick-start the change and create a change-maker.
Multi-taskers: Women are much better at multi-tasking. They are taking up roles, which were previously the preserve of men, like CEOs, entrepreneurs, while handling the home and hearth with equal flair. In some cases, they are also the providers in the family.
Creators of inclusive spaces: Women possess qualities like perseverance, a nurturing spirit, empathy, sensitivity which, when combined with complementary traits like planning and organising, are conducive to creating more inclusive spaces for people.
With such strengths that women possess, why should they continue to be sidelined? The girls of today are proving themselves equal to boys in every respect. They are distinguishing themselves as achievers in every field, from academics to sport to profession. They are successfully playing multiple roles in every sphere of life. Their will to develop and help others develop alongside is what can take our society forward. They are meant to be 50% of the population, their voices matter in creating a more equitable community. Moreover, they make a ‘house’ feel like ‘home’. So, go ahead and welcome the girl child with a warm embrace!
Lata Iyengar, Mumbai, mother of two grown-up daughters says, “If I had a choice, I would choose to have a daughter, always and even in a hundred lifetimes. When you have a daughter, you are a WINNER every day of your life.”
Ashwini Syed, Mumbai, who has both a son and daughter says, “Who says magical creatures don’t exist? I know one… she is my impish, naughty, lovable, beautiful, unpredictable, daring, remarkable daughter!”
Rozie Siqueira, Pune, mother of two daughters speaks, “Girls are very strong, mentally and emotionally. They handle stress better. They have strong familial bonds and take care of their in-laws and their own family even after marriage so parents can always depend on their daughters for support. If you treat and raise your children as children, and not raise them as girls or boys to fit into certain roles, you realise that they are equally good at everything. I have two daughters and have never felt the absence of a son.”
Renita Siqueira is a Communications Officer with Safecity, which is a platform that crowdsources personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces.
India is rising. Our country is zooming ahead in all fields that count at break neck speed. The boom in economy, innovative technologies and improved infrastructure are testament to that. Women have provided considerable contribution to this progress, with them taking up every possible job. From preparing the morning breakfast to sending the Orbiter to Mars, they have made their presence felt in every sphere of life. Yet in every strata of the Indian society, there still remains a cloud of apprehension and insecurity when a girl child is born. Discrimination against a girl begins at her conception and shapes up to be the monster she has to fight every moment of her waking existence. Her second rate citizenship is reflected in the denial of fundamental needs and rights and in such harmful attitudes and practices as a preference for sons, female genital mutilation, incest, sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, discrimination, early marriage, less food and less access to education. Deep-rooted patriarchal perceptions project women as liabilities. There lurks in the Indian conscience, a foul monster of hypocrisy, when the Kali-Durga-Lakshmi worshippers take no time in putting women down or dismissing them as a mere afterthought.
Reasons for The Flawed Sex Ratio
Traditions and rituals outline the existence of the Indian girl child. Amidst uproars of gender equality and enforcement of laws protecting their wellbeing, female infants are still found dumped in trash, by the dozens. Unborn fetuses continue to be sniffed in the womb and terminated without second consideration if their existence is even hinted at. As more and more female fetuses are still being selectively aborted after illegal pre-natal sex determination, the number of female infants per 1000 male infant is rapidly declining. Skewed sex ratio is a silent emergency. But the crisis is real, and its persistence has profound and frightening implications for society and the future of mankind. Continuing preference for boys in society, for the girl child the apathy continues, the child sex ratio in India has dropped to 914 females against 1,000 males, one of the lowest since Independence according to Census 2011. According to global statistics, the normal child sex ratio should be above 950:1000. While southern states like Kerala can boast of a ratio of 1084 females per 1000 males, the most alarming scenario prevails in the northern states like Haryana, Rajasthan and even Delhi, with number of girl child as low as 830 per 1000 male children.
The basic reason for this sorry state of child sex ratio (0-6 years) is the preference for a male child from social and economic perspectives. Female feticide as well as killing of female infants is the biggest contributor. The four primary reasons behind this, according to experts, are,
(1) Pre-existing low social position of women – Women are still considered second rate citizens who do not have the right to basic freedom and privileges that men enjoy. Their roles are primarily fixed as domestic help, tools for pleasure of their men and instruments for procreation.
(2) Economic burden – Outlook that a girl child is an economic burden is basically due to the prevalence of dowry system still abundant in the society. The evil practice of having to give money to the groom’s side in order to get their daughter married is a huge imposition in a country as poverty ridden as India. As a consequence, many families view every girl being born as a potential source of drainage for their hard earned money.
(3) Illiteracy – absence of education is also a contributing factor where women are continuously being blamed for giving birth to girls. Also lack of education and exposure to world keeps them from realizing the potential of their girl child.
(4) Advancement of Diagnostic Techniques – Through modern diagnostic techniques like Ultrasound and Amniocentesis, it is now possible to know the sex of the fetus as early as 12 weeks into the pregnancy. The government has placed strict regulations prohibiting pre-natal sex determination of fetuses in diagnostic centers and hospitals, but it is still prevalent under wraps, in exchange for bribes.
(5) Post-birth Discriminations Against Girls – In scenarios where pre-natal sex determination is not possible, people use brutal customs to get rid of the girl child if the need arises. Headlines like girl babies found abandoned in dumpsters, public gatherings and even trains are commonplace. In states of Rajasthan and Haryana, at many places new born girl child is drowned in boiling milk and even fed pesticides.
While the overall sex ratio of the country has gone up since the last census in 2001, from 933 to 940 in 2011, the child sex ratio in the age group 0-6 years has plummeted from 927 to 914.
Mizoram has the highest child sex ratio at 971, very similar to Meghalaya at 970. Haryana remains the state with lowest ratio of 830 per 1000 boys. Numbers are slightly better in Punjab with 840.
At the district level, Lahul and Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh has the highest recorded ratio in that age group at 1013. Jhajjar district of Haryana had the scariest of the numbers, a mere 774 girls against each 1000 boys.
Among the union territories, Daman and Diu has a child sex ratio of 618, while Mahe district in Pondicherry has the highest numbers of 1,176.
Overall, data from the 2011 Census reveals that all 29 states and Union Territories have shown an increase in child sex ratio as compared to the 2001 Census. But the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and Gujarat have shown a decline in the sex ratio compared with the figures of Census 2001.
This decline in child sex ration figures is cause for alarm. At the same time it demands a serious re-thinking of policies to improve it. It is a matter of consolation that the decline rate has slowed down considerably in the last few years, probably due to the side-effect of growing urbanization and its spread to rural areas.
India has been termed as one of the most dangerous place in the world for a girl child to be born. In the most current data released by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), for 150 countries, for over a span of 40 years, has revealed that India and China are the only two countries in the world where female infant mortality is higher than male infant mortality in the 2000s. The data also depicts that a girl child between the age of 1 to 5 years is 75% more likely to die than a boy child.
Female feticides and infanticides, coupled with deaths of girl child due to neglect and abuse, have skewed the sex ratio and that may have long term socio-psychological effects. The surplus of males in a society leads to many of them remaining unmarried, and consequent marginalization in society and that may lead to anti-social behavior and violence, threatening societal stability and security. We cannot ignore the implications this man-induced alteration of demographic has on the social violence, human development and overall progress of the country.
Although sounding promising, the current scenario is far from being satisfactory. Despite legal provisions, incentive-based schemes, and media messages, many Indians across all societal strata are shunning the girl child from thriving.
Provisions for Safeguarding the Girl Child
Current policies have been directed towards the symptom rather than targeting the direct root cause. Instead of addressing the basic son preference/daughter aversion and low status of women in India, efforts are being made primarily towards the eradication of sex-selection practices.
The Regulation and Prevention of Misuse of Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act came into force in 1994. It was subsequently amended in 2003 to include prevention of use of pre conception diagnostic techniques as well. It is now called the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act.
The government has introduced plans targeted at countering the common psyche of people regarding girls as burdens. The Balika Samriddhi Yojana and Sukanya Samridhi Yojana have been started by the Government in order to help the girl child prosper and not be perceived as an economic burden. Campaigns like the Save the Girl Child and the more recent Beti Bachao, Beti Padao, have been started to create awareness against atrocities faced by the girl child.
Importance of the Girl Child in Indian Society
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had opined that “Women empowered means mother India empowered” and to have empowered women in future we need to empower our girl child of today. In ancient Indian societies, women enjoyed ample freedom and respect. Present day champions of women excellence in India are numerous – from a woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to the heroic deeds of Kiran Bedi, the first woman IPS officer of India, there should be no doubt that our women. Girls are proficient in balancing multiple roles and they are naturally made for multitasking. Today, girls are applying for jobs that were once considered solely for men and tackling them with élan. Not just in their traditional roles of wife, daughter and mothers, girls are even the sole bread-winner of the family. The question remains of changing our perception about girls being fragile, weak and dependent. In today’s India, they are capable of anything. With projects like the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya aimed at providing young girls an increased chance at education, an educated daughter is surely to make their family proud. Investing in the education of a young girl will contribute significantly towards eradication evil practices like child marriage, premature pregnancy, child abuse etc. which, in turn, creates the vision of a healthier nation.