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Save the girl child

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Laadli, a girl child campaign, highlights issues related to sex selection that lead to discrimination against women throughout their lives, says Menka Shivdasani

The bias against girls in our society is a deep-rooted one. In 1961, the child sex ratio— calculated as the number of girls per 1000 boys in the 0-6 year age group—was 976 girls to 1000 boys; by the time of the 2001 census, it had shown a sharp decline to 927. According to Laadli, a girl child campaign that is Population First’s initiative against sex selection, in some parts of the country there are less than 800 girls for every 1000 boys. It’s a demographic disaster waiting to happen, says Laadli.

Sex selection, the prettier phrase for female infanticide and female foeticide, may be a cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence, but in a society that has always valued boys more than girls, such laws are largely ineffective; cultural norms tend to take priority. Today, technology has made the process more sophisticated—you can get rid of girls at the pre-conception stage itself—but the mind-sets are often mired in prehistoric times. Boys are still considered more valuable in the pecking order of families—as for girls, well, they will just get married and go away, won’t they?

Where do these deep-seated prejudices come from? Dr A.L. Sharada, Director, Population First, says: “There are many reasons. Salaried people tend to be less prejudiced against girls, because they do not have to depend so much on their offspring for support. But communities that are in business and have large properties tend to be more biased, and feel it is important to have a boy. In these communities, women are not trained to be business people or to manage property; they are expected to get married and leave.” It’s a vicious circle, however, she adds; if the girls in business families are not educated, how will they ever contribute to the family or support their parents in old age?

Dr Sharada has also noticed that areas where rice is cultivated tend to be less prejudiced against girls, because women play a greater role as labour than they do in wheat cultivation belts. In places like Punjab and Haryana, Laadli points out, the sex ratio has declined to less than 900 girls per 1000 boys. Prosperity has nothing to do with it. The ratio stands at a mere 754 in Fatehgarh Sahib District of Punjab; while in the Kurukshetra district of Haryana it is 770 and South West district of Delhi it is 845; these regions are among the most prosperous in the country. In Mumbai, the country’s commercial capital, which should know better, the sex ratio is 898 girls to 1,000 boys.

Then there’s the other issue—of a girl’s chastity. After all, imagine the shame that it will bring to the family if a girl is raped, or if she is seen with a boy? What honourable Indian family can withstand such a thing!

In this complex tangle of prejudices against daughters, there is also the factor of religion and the rituals it demands. “To some people it matters that the final rites would be performed by sons,” Dr Sharada observes.

Laadli was founded by advertising veteran Bobby Sista in 2002, with the objective of working on population and health issues within the framework of women’s rights and social development. A communications and advocacy initiative, it aims at reducing gender imbalances.

“We started working on these issues after I joined in 2003,” explains Dr Sharada. “In the initial stages we worked directly on the implementation of the law and creating awareness of sex determination. Then we realised we had to work with mass media to change mind-sets because educated rich people continue to have a bias against the girl child. It is not about poverty, but about mind-sets. So much of what we say in the media is anti-woman and reinforces stereotypes.” To this end, the organisation conducts workshops and panel discussions, among other things; it also offers media and advertising awards for gender sensitivity. “Laadli is different from other campaigns because we are creating a pool of people who understand gender through media workshops for students and working journalists,” explains Dr. Sharada. “We are also providing an environment which is positive for the work they do.”

One issue that Laadli has been working with in recent times is safe abortion. “We have a liberal abortion law but may people in the rural areas don’t get the opportunity, and abortion is one of the major causes of maternal death,” explains Dr Sharada. “We want to extend the areas where safe abortions are available; medical abortions can easily be handled by service providers.”

They are also working with rural communities on developmental issues and empowering women. AMCHI (Action for Mobilization of Community Health Initiatives) is a community empowerment program  that has touched lives of more than 60,000 people across 125 villages since 2007, according to Meenal Gandhe, programme manager. “Currently we are working on sanitation, hygiene, reproductive and sexual health, ante-natal and post-natal care, malnutrition among children, and livelihood for women through vermi-composting,” Meenal adds. “We empower people, especially girls and women, with information and skills in order that they make informed decisions regarding their own health and work towards improving the ­­health of their family and health services in the community.”

Dr Sharada addds: “We have reached out to 100 villages of Shahpur. We do not provide services; we strengthen the community and all the institutions in the community—anganwadi workers, teachers, ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists), committees at the village level working with water and sanitation. Often the systems don’t work because no one is participating. We strengthen the participation of service providers and increase participation of women through mahila grams. It is a very empowering project.” Laadli is currently working actively in 25 villages. They are also involved with a mother and child health project, where a woman is taken care of while she is pregnant; “50% of women in India are anaemic,” Dr Sharada remarks. 

Laadli’s work in the area of sex selection is one aspect of the larger picture. As their website points out: “At the heart of the matter is the low status of women in society and the deep-rooted prejudices they face right through their life.” 

“Educated rich people continue to have a bias against the girl child. It is not about poverty, but about mind-sets.”

 - Dr A.L. Sharada

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