India is a land of contradictions in every sense of the term. One of its more odious contradictions is the status of its female population. Scriptures enjoin upon the society to worship women and girls as deities. Among the pantheon, goddesses like Durga, Saraswati, Lakshmi et al are the most prominent of countless Devis. There is also a tradition of worshipping the girl-child during the Navratras. Therefore, when precepts and traditions hold women in such high esteem then India must be a haven for them. Alas! The reality is to the contrary. In fact, the female population in India is being subjected to a wide range of violence, both random and systematic.
Even before a girl is born, she faces a real threat to her existence. When, despite the existence of such laws as the Pre- conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act (1994) female feticide remained unabated a more stringent Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act was passed in 2002, but things have only worsened for her. According to the British medical journal the Lancet an estimated half a million female fetuses are aborted in India every year, which bodes ill for the society’s health even in the near future. In fact what was predicted for China – where the government enforced one-child norm has led to female feticide on a massive scale, resulting in a huge imbalance in the male-female ratio – is now coming true of today’s Indian society. Abductions and rapes are on the increase as is trafficking in women.
Although conditions are uniformly horrendous for females in India, let us look at just one state that, in several ways, is the archetype of the excesses of patriarchal social system that exists in the subcontinent. In Haryana there are certain rituals associated either with the birth of a male child or his exclusive status in the family and society as adult. For example on his birth there is a ceremony called kuan pooja. Again, on the sixth day after a male child’s birth there are celebrations including community feasting. Although the scale of such celebrations supposedly depends on the householder’s economic status, the expenses invariably exceed his means. However, he seldom complains as the birth of a son is considered akin to winning a lottery! Similarly, on the eve of his marriage he performs the ghurchadi ritual when he rides a horse/mare and goes around the village. Moreover, in case of a death in the family, he alone has the right to perform last rites. A girl child does not figure in any of these rituals. Firstly, her birth itself is not considered auspicious – a contradiction really since all our deities who bestow auspiciousness like wealth (Lakshmi), knowledge and wisdom (Saraswati), courage and strength (Durga) etc are females.
For ages, women in Haryana have been at the receiving end of discrimination at the hands of the patriarchal society. Until recently, the purdah system was strictly observed in Haryana. Women were supposed to confine themselves to the kitchen and household chores. Presently, the scourge of dowry has reached such inhumane levels that parents look upon daughters as an economic burden. Although there is the karewa system in Haryana, still a widow or a divorcee becomes lifelong burden on her parental family. As a corollary, a woman giving birth to daughters and failing to deliver a son is stigmatized. The prevailing religious belief that only birth of sons ensures moksha for a family is so strong that it blocks the woman’s path to emancipation. Moreover, thanks to the intensely commercial social practices a daughter “takes away” the family’s wealth while a son enables retention of wealth within the family, indicating to the harsh fact that giving birth to sons is a more lucrative proposition as they fetch dowry too.
Various research findings indicate a symbiosis of sorts between poverty and the girl-child’s poor status. Most girls from poor families are married off even before they attain puberty – a familiar phenomenon, especially in Rajasthan, Haryana, UP and Bihar. This results in early motherhood, thus depriving them of such basic rights as health, education etc. Naturally, their right to aspire for a better life through self-development is subverted. Researchers tell us that girls between 13 to 18 years of age have a low percentage of iron, rendering them anemic and vulnerable to other health related problems. You really don’t have to study such research statistic for understanding the problem’s enormity. Just an empathetic observation around you will show how malnourished an average Indian girl is. Being underfed and largely neglected, she suffers from poor growth. In fact, experts tell us that this causes development of narrow pelvis among adolescent girls. For such girls, child bearing is akin to signing their own death warrants.
Obviously, mere platitudes – even legislating tough laws – will not improve the girl child’s condition. A concerted multipronged effort is required for the purpose. First of all, the lawmakers, law keepers and law enforcers must facilitate effective implementation of existing laws meant not only for protecting her life but also those that aim at improving her economic status – be it in terms of her share in her parents’ as well as spouse’s property or her undisputed right to manage the streedhan. Of course, crimes against women ought to be fought at war footing. Simultaneously, there is a need to resurrect ethical practices in the medical profession that is being increasingly besmirched thanks to the mercenary and foul deeds of those belonging to this profession. Right from school onwards the social implications of female feticide must be drummed into the psyche of the country’s future citizens. There is a need to make them realize how the decreasing number of females will result in greater violence and crime in the society. There are grave economic implications too, in terms of loss of human lives that could have made meaningful contributions to the country’s development in different fields. Let us not forget that women in India have already proven their potential, as well as worth, by playing a variety of socio-economic roles in various professions. Moreover, they play a vital role in decision making that affects the fortunes of an entire family.
Nevertheless, there won’t be any family in the absence of women. Just think!
Published in The Financial Word dated 5 April 2013