What ailing girl child in India

'Missing-a-girl-child': According to the 2011 Census in India, there are only 918 girls to 1000 boys on average in India Photograph:( Others )

Others New Delhi, Delhi, India Oct 12, 2016, 09.31 AM (IST) Mary E. John

For a long time, the only days people remembered or celebrated were holy ones – Diwali,  Bakhrid, Christmas, and so on.  Then came the era of honouring people one respected and cared for in a more secular mode – Mother’s Day, Teacher’s Day, even Children’s Day.  More recently the United Nations came up with a rather different agenda:  1975 was declared as the International Year of Women, and all member nations were asked to produce a national report on the Status of Women in their respective countries. Here the point was to recognise that some people, in this case women, suffered various disadvantages and discriminations, which nation-states needed to both acknowledge and redress.  Subsequently, other groups have been similarly marked out by the UN system internationally, such as indigenous peoples, those discriminated by race. Even the climate has now been accorded an international day because it is being ‘endangered’ by human action.

The International Year of the girl child was declared in 2000.  Subsequently, under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2012, a Day of the Girl Child was announced on October 11th. This October we would be acknowledging the fourth such year.  So we might want to ask why, when we already have International Women’s Year on March 8th do we need to separately focus on the girl child?  And what is being said and done in her name?

As it happens, since 2000 the girl child (rendered as beti in Hindi) has entered our public discourses quite prominently, including in the visual media.  So much so, that this figure now represents gender discrimination and exploitation in India, and we think much less about the problems of an adult, let alone older women.  One of the reasons for this is the growing concern over the adverse child sex ratio (CSR), which has been steadily declining since the 1980s.  

The child sex ratio measures the number of girls per 1000 boys in the 0-6 age group of a given population, and is usually 950 girls in almost all parts of the world.  However, Census 2001 showed an all India average of 927, and in 2011 the figure dropped even further to 918.  There are huge regional variations – with the northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana having the lowest figures (in 2001 Punjab’s CSR was 798!), but the bad news is that the rest of India is also beginning to decline.  To cut a long story short, families are resorting to the practice of gender-biased sex selection – when a woman gets pregnant she gets an ultrasound done with the sole purpose of detecting the sex of the foetus and has an abortion if it is female.  

Families not in dire poverty, striving to improve their economic situation by having fewer children in whom they can ‘invest’, are the most susceptible to practicing sex selection. Though many of them say that they would like to have one boy and one girl, what this actually translates into is having ‘at least one son and at the most one daughter’. Moreover, such families are quite ‘modern’ in wanting their children to have sufficient care and nutrition, good education, and to successfully settle down in adulthood—a reliable job for the boy and a stable married life for the girl. But this is easier said than done and has been creating an enormous sense of burden and anxiety, especially when it comes to bringing up a daughter to adulthood in an economic and cultural milieu filled with so much uncertainty. 

After the Census of 2001 showed widespread drops in 0-6 year child sex ratios, a number of schemes were floated, especially at the state level, or existing schemes were modified to address the low value given to the ‘girl child’.  These took the form of conditional cash transfer schemes in states such as Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Madya Pradesh.  As the name suggests, schemes like Ladli, Dhanalakshmi and so on were adapted to encourage families to have a daughter, and offered payments to be put in a bank account in her name at various stages from birth, immunisation, and stages of schooling, where a lump sum would finally be available for the girl once she reached 18 and had not married yet.

Two years ago, a new scheme was launched by the central government “Beti bachao beti padhao” with much fanfare, with an overall budget of 100 crores.  In states like Haryana which has had a long-standing low child sex ratio, this scheme is very visible in the form of huge hoardings across towns and on main highways, on the backs of buses, and in pronouncements frequently made by state functionaries.  

However well intentioned, this scheme represents a set back from the conditional cash transfer schemes, with all their limitations.  This is because all the money is being utilised as a communication campaign, as though the problem were simply and primarily one of the wrong ‘mindset’ of the people who are engaging in sex determination testing, or are not educating their daughters sufficiently.  But people are not suffering from traditional mindsets in the first place.  

What makes the situation worse is that major government schemes, such as the flagship Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) for pre-school children, and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan which has been the backbone for implementing the Right to Education (RTE) have in these last two years witnessed major cuts in budget allocations. These are the very schemes that are crucial for ensuring basic nutrition and early child care, as well as universal schooling, and therefore critical for improving the lives of all children, girls included.  

This brings me to my final point.  Something very important is lost sight of in all the attention to the girl child, thought of as a young daughter, and imaged as a cute little girl, ribbons and all. Daughters today are being educated today as never before, and in higher education, the number of female students is close to parity with males.  So let us, by all means, think especially of the girl child but let us remember that it is for both girls and  women that genuine equality must be our goal.

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