By Veda Nadendla:
“When we had the first girl, he was agitated, but hopeful. After the fourth, he began to hate me and after that I lost my place in his life and home. I was nothing but a slave for cooking and raising the girls. He wouldn’t spend enough on us, young girls have needs and I took up a teaching job to support the needs of my four growing girls.”
This is the story of my grandfather who wanted a boy to carry his legacy, but got only girls, four of them. My grandparents have always shared a mutual hatred towards each other. Over the years, my curiosity for the reason behind their hatred has led me to realize what a struggle life has been for my grandmother, my mother and her sisters and how it is a pressing concern in our country that is destroying the lives of millions of girls. None of them will ever forget their disturbed childhood for it was filled with his scorns and disappointment.
Why are girls so unwelcome in a country which identifies itself as feminine?
Our lives and cultures are dictated by patriarchal values which are extremely discriminatory. Like my mother and her sisters, millions of girls across the country are born into families which don’t want them, labelling them a burden and a reason for expenditure. Some of these girls are not even allowed to be born.
In many families, a girl is considered ‘paraya dhan’ (someone else’s property, not worth investing in), a burden whose safety needs to be ensured, who need to be paid for during marriage; while boys are highly preferred for their ability to inherit property, their capacity to be financially independent and look after parents in their old age. Many women who give birth to girl children are forced to undergo sex selection, termed unfit for motherhood and treated like outcasts by their own families and communities. This prejudice against girl children has penetrated the urban-rural boundaries, not only causing a skewed sex ratio, but a rapidly declining sex ratio which raises some serious concerns about the discriminatory practices prevailing in 21st century India.
The Annual Health Survey 2013- 2014 (source) highlights the worsening state of sex ratio at birth and sex ratio between 0-4 years in nine Indian states. These are states which showed improvement in sex ratio in previous surveys. What does this tell us? Is it safe to say that at this rate, the female sex is headed toward scarcity?
Despite the increasing liberalization of the Indian market and household in the past two decades, traditional and archaic beliefs against women, seem not to be leaving our mindsets. The occurrences of sex selective abortion, female infanticide, foeticide, neglect of girl children and early marriage prove that patriarchy is an oppressive and criminal belief system prevailing in India.
Here are illustrations describing everyday patriarchy on the internet.
Where are the girl children among the children of India? The second illustration shows the Wikipedia page of Child Sex Ratio in India. This section is nefariously focused on the trouble caused to males due to the shortage of females to marry and the repercussions of this shortage on the generations of males to come, with not one mention about the impact on the female population of the country.
Similar to the above illustrations, a large part of India prefers sons to daughters. Despite an increase in female literacy in the past decade, child sex ratio of children (0-6 years) has dropped to 918 girls from 927 in the previous decade. There is awareness, there is activism and yet there is no action. What does this nation need immediately?
We need to fight patriarchy, together. We need to squash gender insensitivity and sex selective practices. We need to encourage the inclusive growth of girl children in our families. There is a pressing need to educate girls and let them choose a time for marriage. The need of the hour to equip girls and boys will the same skills for survival and let them grow as members of the community with a shared responsibility. This may sound very straightforward to achieve, but it is not. Patriarchy is a deeply ingrained belief system and a way of life for many in India; expecting them to change their beliefs overnight is asking for a lot.
One person, one family, one community at a time, we need to start somewhere. My grandmother was the catalyst for change in my family; she worked as a teacher for 25 years, ensured that her daughters studied till Bachelors, made sure they worked for a living and learnt the value of money. Her decision prepared her daughters to lead independent and successful lives. My family and I have already begun, when will you?