Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CHILD: February 07, 1999
Sugar and Spice?
What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice, that's what little girls are made of." What an irony that some little girls in India, a lucky few, actually grow up believing this when the reality for millions of their peers is so different.
For despite 50 years as an independent nation, despite globalisation, satellite communication and other symbols of technological progress, and of course, despite the bomb (that great symbol of "shakti"), millions of girls in India are denied the right to be born and if they are born, denied the right to lead a life of dignity.
I call this the circle of life - and death.
If you are born a girl, a female, in India, you have:
The right to be born: (abort the foetus, if it is female)
The right to live: (kill the infant, if it is a girl)
The right to nutrition: (starve the baby, if it is a girl)
The right to health: (neglect ill health, if it is a girl)
The right to learn: (educate minimally, if it is a girl)
The right to a childhood: (train in housework and child care, if it is a girl)
The right to choice: (marry off soon after puberty, if it is a girl)
The right to reproductive health: (insist on the birth of a boy, not a girl)
The right to be born: (abort the foetus, if it is female)....
A gloomy picture, an irony, in a country where the birth of a child is celebrated, where people fuss over children as in few other countries, where goddesses are worshipped. Yet the birth of a girl heralds universal gloom.
When the campaign to acknowledge the "girl child" as a special entity was first launched in the 1980s, it seemed to be a tautology. Are all girls not children? Therefore, why the "girl" child? Why not children in general? Why focus only on girls?
The reasons became clear when gender-segregated data on children revealed a clear pattern of neglect of girls - from the cradle to the grave.
Every year, 27,06,000 children under five die in India. But the number of girls who die is higher than boys. A 1995 National Family Health survey revealed that post neonatal mortality is 13 per cent higher in females than in males. The child mortality figures indicated that the mortality figures were an incredible 43 per cent higher for females than for males. These figures are all the more astounding given that genetically, girls are considered stronger and more resilient than boys at the time of birth.
Of course, the most stark instance of the fate of a girl child has come repeatedly from Tamil Nadu, a state where all other social indicators suggest that things are improving. For instance, the IMR (infant mortality rate) in Tamil Nadu fell from 113 in 1971 to 57 in 1991. That is a dramatic improvement.
Yet a study by Sheela Rani Chunkath and V. B. Athreya (1997) showed that the juvenile sex ratio (0-4 years) in certain districts of Tamil Nadu was rapidly falling. For instance, even though the national juvenile sex ratio had declined from 976 females to a thousand males in 1961 to 945 in 1991, in Dharmapuri district it fell from 993 in 1971 (1961 figures not available) to just 905 in 1991. The figure for the state was 995 in 1961 to 948 in 1991, a decline which was not so dramatic and marginally better than the national figure of 945.
Apart from female infanticide, documented in detail in Tamil Nadu and to a lesser extent in Rajasthan (although it is prevalent in other states as well), until the Eighties it was not generally known that female foetuses were being regularly aborted. Figures for this are not readily available as it is virtually impossible to ascertain whether women abort because they do not want to have a child at that particular point in time, or whether they decide to abort because they detect that they are carrying a female foetus. The only reason they need to state for an abortion is "failure of contraceptive". But there is enough evidence to suggest that the practice of conducting sex determination tests is widely prevalent despite laws that prohibit the use of medical technologies for this purpose.
Given the hurdles that a girl must overcome in the very first years of her existence, it is hardly surprising that empowering and raising women's status continues to be such an uphill task in this country.
Indeed, studies have shown that the first few years of neglect leave a mark for life. Malnourished children rarely catch up in later life. It affects their physical and intellectual performance levels. Thus, girls are punished in childhood - for the crime of being born a girl - and continue to pay the price for the rest of their lives.
One area where a dent is being made, albeit slowly, is that of female literacy. When you drive through the countryside, whether in Rajasthan - which has the lowest levels of female literacy - or in Maharashtra, or in the states of the South, a noticeable symbol of change is the number of little girls you see dressed in the standard school uniform (blue skirt and white blouse, embellished often with bright red ribbons in the hair) trudging to the nearby school. It is a sight for sore eyes. We did not see this two decades back. So something must be working. Special incentives to send girls to school must be making an impact.
And even if they inevitably drop out after junior school - to help their mothers with household chores or taking care of their sibling - this is better than no education. Adult literacy campaigns have established that neo-literates are usually determined to ensure that their children go through school.
The task of turning upside down a warped value-system that justifies such harsh and callous treatment to a helpless child, just because she is a female, is not an easy one. But a beginning has to be made. Even a million messages reaffirming the value of girls may not suffice. But they must go out - repeatedly.
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