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Saturday, September 25, 2004

The recent release of data on religions by Registrar General & Census Commissioner of India has kicked off a debate on growth rates of religions in India. There are quite a large number of ‘experts’ who are indulging in hairsplitting analysis of behavioral/attitudinal differences towards birth control among the members practicing different religions in India.  However, most of us have failed to notice that there seems to be a common bond that unites people of India with reference to their attitude towards the girl child i.e., to kill them. This tragic unity of purpose in killing a girl child in this remarkably diverse land demonstrates the strength of obnoxious social values that are perpetuating Beti Maro (Kill the Girl) syndrome.

It has been more than a decade since Amartya Sen referred to 100 million missing women – a missing woman is one who should have been alive but is not – due to family neglect and discrimination. The recent estimates suggest that India accounts for more than half of these missing women. The Census of India 2001 data also shows similar and disturbing patterns in the sex ratios in India.

India has 933 women for every thousand men, which is appallingly low when compared with our poor South Asian neighbor Bangladesh (953), and our bete noire, Pakistan (938). If we go little more into details, we will see the devil in all its demonic proportions. Among the states, Haryana has the lowest sex ratio of 861 followed by Punjab at 874. Punjab’s sex ration among 0 – 6 years population is the lowest at 793!!  It is not merely Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (BIMARU), which have low sex ratios; it is the economically prosperous regions of Punjab and Haryana (820), and urban centers such as Chandigarh (845) and Delhi (865) that have abysmally low sex ratios among 0-6 years population, even in relation to BIMARU states.

All this demonstrates that economic prosperity, education and urbanization will not automatically result in gender equality. For instance, Monica Dasgupta with data from Punjab, shows that second and subsequent girls “experience 32 per cent higher mortality than their siblings if their mothers are uneducated, but this gap jumps to 136 per cent if their mothers are educated.” Urbanization has resulted in easy availability of medical technology such as sex determination tests which prompt foeticide. In States such as Tamil Nadu, the problem of female infanticide has come to light in glaring proportions. It is estimated that, in Tamil Nadu, 16 newborn girls out of every 1000 are victims of female infanticide. The UN Hunger Task Force statistics states that, due to malnutrition, neglect and absence of timely health care facilities, girls are 43% more likely to die than boys between ages one and five.

How can we address this situation? We must see to it that the laws pertaining to feticide, female infanticide and dowry are implemented in letter and spirit. An intensive information, communication and education campaign must be launched on gender equality. Communication campaigns can be made effective by observing certain peculiar features that characterize information flow. Here, the idea of focal households becomes important. These are those households in village/small towns whose decisions in everyday life affect and are mimicked by other households. The State can save much effort (monetary and otherwise) by approaching and convincing through various incentives, so that they agree to propagate the government’s ideas with regard to preference for the girl child, which would help turn the sex ratio around to acceptable levels.

There is also a necessity of bringing in an incentive structure for protecting the girl child. The governments must encourage setting up of activities, which are intensive in labor by young women. Government must also credibly commit that it would provide the complementary inputs to these activities at a economical rate in the agricultural lean seasons. This scheme would make the value of having women in the household immediately obvious. The government could welcome private sector investment in these small-scale activities. Insurance schemes could also be offered to women in these activities. This would mean that not only are women earning members in the household, but they are net earners, as their health and other costs have been insured for. These are but initial steps.

We all should deliberate and come up with a mission statement and a plan of action. Ultimately, social ills cannot be cured by legislation and state action alone. All of us need to introspect and reshape our attitudes towards women. Nothing short of a great social movement would do. The spiritual leaders and opinion makers have an important role and obligation in this mission of civilizing our society. It is only through concerted and collective efforts that we can combat this scourge of missing women.