New Delhi: Cultural differences in the value of girls in India have resulted in millions of girls missing from the population and the exploitation of millions of others.
The latest statistics released by Indian government shows the country has 63 million fewer women that it should have. Despite ongoing efforts to bridge the gender inequality gap, these statistics show that over 9 percent of baby girls are aborted in sex-selective abortions. What is also evident is that the early childhood mortality rate for girls is significantly higher than those for boys.
“Boys are often viewed as integral to carrying on the family name, and daughters – from the time they are born – are traditionally believed to belong to their future husband’s family,” a study notes. Girls are seen as a burden to the family, and they do not receive as much medical care nor do they do eat as well as boys.
Despite laws passed to end sex-selective abortions, they still continue. A number of cases have come to light showing an illegal abortion trade where only the remains of female babies are found. Collusion between doctors and families and lack of oversight by government officials contribute to the problem.
The result of the societal preference for boys is that women are not given the same opportunities as men — in healthcare, education, banking and communication. Even basic necessities such as access to water, electricity and sanitation can be lacking for some women.
The Indian government has taken a number of strides toward providing more opportunities for women in the past decade, setting quotas for women in local government. New laws are aimed at reducing domestic violence and child abuse towards girls and prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace. While these have helped to ease some of the discrimination towards women and girls, the societal gender divide continues.
Families often marry off their young daughters early. While some estimates place one-third of all Indian girls married before the age of 18, in some states almost 50 percent of Indian girls are married off before that age. Human trafficking of girls is also rampant. Girls are sold as brides, only to be abandoned by their husbands or they are placed in brothels.
In 2006, India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act designed to prevent child marriages. Despite this law, child marriages are rising in some urban areas. Additionally, the number one crime against women in India is cruelty by husband or relatives. Domestic abuse of women and girls accounts for 33 percent of all crimes against women.
“In a situation where child marriage has social approval who is going to help the girl complain against her husband?” lawyer and child bride advocate Sudha Ramalingam explained, adding, “No one, not even her close family, will help.”
In a landmark decision by India’s Supreme Court in October 2017, they ruled that sexual relations with a bride under the age of 18 is considered rape. Previously, a clause existed that allowed a husband to have relations with his bride so long as she was over the age of 15.
“Child marriage is a social evil, and it is forced and perpetuated by adults. They are the ones who must be penalized,” child rights activist Bharti Ali said.
To curb child brides and promote educating girls, countries such as Brazil and Mexico have developed “conditional cash transfer” programs designed to pay families to keep girls in school instead of forcing them to get married.
Haryana, a northern Indian state, adopted a similar program in 1994 to reduce the numbers of child brides, but the results are mixed. Families were offered US$400 USD to keep their daughters unmarried until they were 18 years old. A study showed that participants in the program were more likely to have their daughters enrolled in eighth grade, but 75 percent of the parents used the money to pay for the girl’s wedding and dowry as soon as she turned 18.
Evaluations of the program showed that the government did not educate the public as to the purpose of the program and perhaps “may have even reinforced notions that girls are a burden.”