By Bala Sai:
In India, there is a mysterious epidemic. Over the years, it has slowly become stronger and fiercer, spreading across our country’s geography like a vicious plague, silent and unnoticed. Eerily, it affects only the girl child. If, unfortunately, a girl child is born, she is destined to mysteriously disappear, never to be seen again. Perhaps, when a woman is expecting, the Gods flip a coin in the air. Heads or Tails. Smiles or Frowns. Boy or Not.
Amid the din of awareness programs and television debates stressing on gender-equality, women empowerment and women’s rights, we have silently ignored these hooded figures roaming amongst us, armed to eliminate gender issues right at the womb. We pride ourselves on development, on economic growth and technology; we talk of being a global power. But a cursory look at a few appalling numbers should make us wince. Child-sex ratio in our country is on a shockingly decreasing trend. It has fallen gradually for the past two decades from 945 to 918 girls for every 1000 boys. Not a good statistic, for a ‘progressive’ country as ours.
It is all a matter of simple economics. A male child is a gift, an asset, while the female child is a curse, a bad omen, a liability. In states like Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the son preference still dominates choices that couples make. It is not surprising that these are the states which end up with a skewed sex-ratio. Misuse of technology has ended up making it easier for those looking for gender biased sex-selection.
In 2005, the Government launched the Janani Suraksha Yojana, which incentivized the parents of newly born girl babies by providing cash benefits of up to Rs.1400 per couple. The intention was a noble one- to protect the girl child, but according to chilling accounts emerging from states like Rajasthan, the government just ended up putting a price on their heads. Once the cash is pocketed, the babies disappear mysteriously in a matter of days.
“They kill girls overnight by poisoning them with opium, crushing them with stones and starving them,” says Hanuman Singh, the Sarpanch of Chaiyan village in the district of Jaisalmer. Rajasthan, along with Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh has as many as 10 gender-critical districts, landing in the third spot behind Haryana (12) and Punjab (11). Even in some states with healthier sex- ratios for children at birth, there is a serious decrease in the 0-6 age bracket, indicating a horrifying trend.
The Global Gender Gap Index has pegged India at 114th position out of 142 countries, with most South Asian countries ranked ahead of us, except for Pakistan. India has been one of the worst performing nations in the Index, and has actually been shamelessly slipping down several notches each year, rather than climbing up. When it comes to women’s health, India is at the 141st position. You read that right. Women’s healthcare in India is the second worst in the world. Maternal mortality at 190 for every 100,000 live births is extremely worrisome, with comparatively economically backward countries like Bangladesh posting much better numbers.
Even though gender biased sex selection is banned across the country, the practice has survived clandestinely. According to a recent study titled ‘Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence & Son Preference In India’ released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA-India) and International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) last month, “An overwhelming majority of men and women considered it very important to have at least one son in their family. In fact, more women (81%) than men (76%) felt so.”
Such gender preference means that women are bound to have more and more children either until a boy is born, or until enough boys have been born. This further exposes women to increased dangers of maternal mortality, as risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth increase substantially after the third child.
A change is required. Not just in our laws and policies, but in the minds of our people. Several NGOs have risen to this challenge, helping the government in combating this terrible epidemic. But evidently, it is not enough. We can’t educate the masses about the value of the girl child through mere posters and pamphlets. Patriarchy is inherent in our system. It needs to be gradually eradicated. Laws, policies, and government schemes need to be cleansed of patriarchal leanings. Legislations promoting gender equality that merely exist on paper need to be brought into widespread practice.
Every girl child is valuable to the nation, a cause for pride. It is our duty to protect them. This issue must transcend the realms of activism and percolate into public thinking. We cannot allow the situation to worsen. Such heinous practices are in effect, crimes against the nation; they are crimes against humanity. Until they are completely weeded out, we remain a backward country. Until it enters the public’s conscience that the girl child is not an economic liability but capable of the same achievements and successes as a son, we cannot call ourselves a progressive nation. Sex-ratio and maternal mortality rates are not merely numerical targets to be ticked off our Millennium Development Goals; they measure the health of our country. And in that respect, we are still ailing.