Lead the way, girls!

Syeda Hameed | Updated on December 31, 2011


Hope alive: The author (in saree) with a group of ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) in a village in Budgam district of Kashmir.

We were in Kashmir as part of a nationwide programme of the Planning Commission of India to find ways of ending the drastic decline in child sex ratio. The 2011 Census had already highlighted the downward trend in most of India, both urban and rural. This surprisingly included Kashmir, not known to be hostile to daughters.

As we visited different areas in the State, we stopped at a village in Budgam district to speak to a group of young ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) about what can be done to reverse this trend. These bright village girls, dressed in their uniforms, with blue dupattas covering the head, spoke in one voice: ‘Honour the girl child from the moment she is born.'

This, of course, is easier said than done, given that honour is hardly in evidence in most families when daughters are born. In May 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had entrusted the Planning Commission with two tasks related to children. The first was to restructure the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS); the second, devise policies that allow the girl child — once she is born — to live.

Girl… interrupted

The second task was directly related to the issue of declining child sex ratio. The girl child becomes a victim of gross nutritional and health neglect. Consequently, more female than male children succumb to childhood illness, and this directly impacts the child sex ratio. There are two issues to be noted here: Sex ratio at birth pertains to the number of girls born per 1,000 boys; whereas child sex ratio relates to the number of girls per 1,000 boys aged 0-6 years. The census provided the latter figure; no figures have been released so far on the sex ratio at birth.

The Planning Commission began by convening a multi-sectoral meeting in Delhi to brainstorm on the declining child sex ratio. It had to be multi-sectoral because the girl child's survival is not just the responsibility of the ministries of Health, and Women and Child, but also those of Rural Development, Education, Information and Broadcasting, Science and Technology, and Panchayati Raj. In fact, no sector can be exempted from responsibility for the girl child. The multi-sectoral action we had adopted to restructure the ICDS became the chosen model here too. The meeting was interesting, because it revealed the general anxiety and even emotion with which senior bureaucrats, representing different sectors of the government, searched for ways in which they could contribute to ensure girls in India a happy and healthy childhood.

Warning: Women missing

The ground was thus prepared for action in the field. For me, it seemed right to begin with Kashmir, partly due to geography, it's after all the northernmost State, and partly sentimental. I am one of four girls in my family and born in Kashmir. Not only was my birth, back in the 1940s, celebrated, it was also in Kashmir that I was nourished, and prepared for life.

After Kashmir, the Planning Commission plans to work its way downwards, pausing especially in those States and districts that have steeply declining sex ratios. We will also study the issue of sex ratio at birth, as we search for more ways to address the negative trend — a recurring theme in Prof Amartya Sen's work for the last 30 years. He had been the first to talk about the “missing women” in India and all of South Asia.

Hated in the womb

Since 2002, India has had the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, which criminalises sex determination and the use of ultrasound machines for this. The Act has not made any dramatic impact, largely because of weak enforcement. Across the country, there have been minimal convictions. Innovations such as the ‘Kolhapur Experiment', which places a monitor in the ultrasound machine to track the pregnancy, have proved useful. But technological approaches won't help unless the misuse is properly tracked and punished. Those who deliver diagnostic services believe they are performing a useful function by identifying pre-birth abnormalities and they sometimes complain they are being unduly victimised. But the fact remains that sonography machines mounted on vans are freely deployed, even in interior areas, to cater to families that want to kill female foetuses. This heinous abuse needs to be immediately identified and strictly punished in a time-bound manner.

One is conscious, of course, that punishing this crime is only going to get more difficult with each passing day. Today, one can send a blood sample to clinics abroad with the help of the Internet and a credit card — no need for ultrasound machines! On the Net, I found a site that advertised a special kit for $25. A drop of blood from the expectant mother can reveal foetal gender after seven weeks of pregnancy.

The kit guarantees 95 per cent accuracy, or a complete refund. The advertisement had a toll-free California number. Cyberspace is being used to create a world empty of women, it seems.

Rejoice in the girl child

We also need to make sure that once a girl is born she receives both care and love from the moment of her birth.

Important suggestions have come to us from experts and medical practitioners, including State incentives for mothers as well as frontline caregivers like ASHAs, anganwadi workers and auxiliary nurse midwives; Panchayats could adopt girls and celebrate their birth and birthdays in the same manner as they would for boys; messages welcoming the girl child could be sent out through the local media — community radio, TV channels, local cultural performances or street theatre.

And, given our love for Bollywood, perhaps top stars could be asked to “adopt” girls and celebrate their lives before the whole world.

There is powerful symbolism in the fact that three women — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman — jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

If they had not been allowed to be born, or nurture into productive adulthood, imagine what the world community would have lost.

In 2000, writing my report ‘Voice of the Voiceless: Status of Muslim Women in India', I was looking for an appropriate epigraph for it and approached the famous writer Qurratulain Hyder.

After I told her about my experiences of meeting women in many Muslim neighbourhoods all over India and the stories they had recounted about their multiple deprivations, Hyder suggested a popular folk song sung in the villages of Uttar Pradesh: ‘ O re vidhata, binti karoon padoon paiyan baram bar/ Agle janan mohe bitiya na keejo, chahe narak mein deejo daar (O my creator, I plead before you, implore you time and again/ Next incarnation don't make me a girl child, in hell instead let me wane).

Today, I want that song to end. Instead, we need a song that celebrates our daughters, even as convergent action taken across the public and private spheres, within governments and within civil society, ensures that not only are our girl children allowed to be born, but go on to lead productive and self-fulfilling lives.

(The writer is Member, Planning Commission, Government of India.) © Women's Feature Service

Published on November 24, 2011

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