The Water Cooler

No country for women

Girl children in IndiaTo be killed before you are born is inexplicable. For the 10 million girl children who were brutally killed due to selective abortions [after pre-natal screening between 2001 and 2011], the first blow landed before they were born. ABC News did an expose last year where it claimed that a staggering 40 million women have gone 'missing'. The result? The sex ratio has dipped to 918 girls for every 1000 males in 2011 from 927 girls in 2001.

For the girls who make the cut, it's not over, gendercide awaits. India has among the highest rates of girl children being killing after birth in the world (by women who can't afford pre-natal screening). It's a girl; three words that sound the death knell. After carrying their babies for nine months, mothers or midwives will put an end to the 'burden' by slamming their heads against the wall, burying them alive or stuffing a wet cloth in their mouths. Survive this and malnourishment follows, felling more. Around 2.5 million children die in India every year, that's one in five deaths globally, with girls being 50 per cent more likely to die. Dowry is cited as the main reason for boys being preferred to girls.

One of the biggest challenges of being a woman is the feeling that they are burden to the family and must be quickly unloaded to any suitor. Minors being married before they are physically and emotionally mature is the norm. According to a UNICEF report 'State of the world's children 2012: children in an urban world' almost 22 per cent of women have children before they turn 18! Only 41 per of them initiated early breastfeeding, which is crucial for mental and physical nourishment resulting in 48 per cent of children under the age of five being stunted.

The unfortunate part is that selective abortions, gendercide and high infant mortality rates for girls below five are a widely reported phenomena, and the government has tried to address these issues. But, discrimination and a nation obsessed with male children for hundreds of years will not be easy to set right. This is not just in villages where illiteracy is widespread and discrimination runs generations deep. Urban, well-educated families also behave in the same fashion. One of Delhi's districts has a sex ratio of just 836 females per 1,000 males.

Being a girl child in India must be a constant looking over the shoulder and crawl through the trenches. While literacy rates are abysmally low for men and women, the fairer sex is worse off. According to a UNICEF report the national literacy rate of girls over seven years is 54 per cent against 75 per cent for boys.  Girls in the Northern states are worse off, between 33 to 50 per cent.

Rural households don't compare favorably to urban areas. There are many reasons: in rural households they are unsure of investing in an asset that will leave the house one day, schools have no toilets, and the girls are needed at home for tasks like carrying water or scouring for firewood. This is a travesty and counterproductive to the government's fight to bring about social equality. Research suggests that educating a woman has far ranging positive effects. Educated women marry later, have fewer children, feed them better, abstain from having many children and more likely to send their children to school.

Cut to the workplace and the story continues. Women earn lesser than men, get passed over for promotions and yanked out of the workforce once they are married or have children. Getting back to the workforce involves personal guilt and social stigma of neglecting children. This leads to a lot of skilled, well educated, experienced, bright women dropping out of the workforce, sometimes permanently.

In a country where women are respected and worshipped as Goddesses one would assume that they should feel safe. This is not the case. The National Crime Records Bureau reported that rape is the fastest growing crime in India and that there are 60 new cases being reported every day. This figure could actually be double considering how under reported most of these cases are due to family honor and the social stigma attached with naming the rapist, who in a lot of cases is somebody known to the family. Crime against women should come as no surprise. If a skewed sex ratio is the cause, rape is the effect. If the crime against women is not alarming enough, the reaction to rape is sometimes ludicrous. Recently when a woman was gang raped in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, the state chief minister, refused to acknowledge the rape terming it a 'cooked-up case'. Reporting of rape is low, and once reported convictions take long and never materialize.

If India were to move up the HDI (human development index), where India ranks a low 134 among 187 countries, protecting its women and their emancipation will be a crucial factor.

Not all is doom and gloom; there are a few silver linings. More women are getting educated, occupying key positions in government and business, dowry deaths have come down, and they are entering the workforce in large numbers.  They are also increasingly having more of a say in forming governments as well. In the recently concluded state elections, women outnumbered men when it came to voting. These are baby steps.

In the pre-independence era we had reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyotiba Phule and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who championed women's rights and put an end barbaric practices like Sati and ensured women were entitled to equal rights.

We need reformers and campaigners like them more than ever now.

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