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Girl Child in India – an endangered species? 

By Virginia Saldanha

Mumbai: A study published by Al Jazeera News with the headlines “Gender bias kills 239,000 girls in India every year” is hardly surprising.

The study found that densely populated rural areas were plagued with the most suffering for girls. The country’s largest states in northern India -Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh -accounted for two-thirds of India’s total female deaths. The death rate of girls in the 0-5 age group is 30 per 1000 in these states while it is 15 per 1000 in another 25 States.

This study did not take into account the sex selective abortions that eliminate several thousand female foetuses each year in India. It only looked at neglect of the girl child after birth, with regard to nutrition, healthcare and education. Under normal conditions mortality rates for girls should be lower than that of boys in the 0-5 age group as girls have an inherent natural biological advantage over boys.

It is not coincidental that the most horrific violence to women takes place in these northern states of the country which are predominantly agricultural with low socio-economic development. Consequently, attitudes towards women are rigidly traditional with women themselves often enforcing the discrimination. Women occupy a contradictory position where they reject the child of their womb when it is a girl because they know the bleak future that awaits her. They actually wail at the birth of a girl child and do not want to even look at the baby!

How can India proudly proclaim progress if thousands of her girl children die because of negative attitudes towards her?

The Government of India budget for 2018-2019 has absolutely no allocation of funds for the development of women or for gender education to change attitudes towards women and girl children, which are the underlying reasons for the neglect and consequent death of thousands of girl children in India as well as the extensive violence to women witnessed even into the 21st century.

Walk into any village and you will see a desolate structure that is supposed to be a government primary school, minus a teacher and any equipment or furniture that makes it look like school. Nobody cares. The poor villagers are busy struggling to obtain basic necessities like food and water. Every pair of hands is mustered to help eke out a living. Males believed to be stronger than females are preferred.

Such an environment feeds into the patriarchal power of a frustrated male, who vents his frustrations on females so much so that it has become ‘normal’ for him to claim the right to beat his wife or rape his daughter!

Caste and economic status compounds the neglect of the female child. Especially when lower castes have the added responsibility of seeing to the safety and security of the female as she grows. The attitudes towards educated women in a closed minded patriarchal society especially from the higher castes borders on “dangerous”. I recall a story shared by feminists in North India about a young Dalit girl walking to write her teacher’s training examination when she was ambushed by higher caste men, raped and killed! An educated dalit woman is viewed as a threat.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was adopted by world leaders in 2015 for progress that leaves no body behind. Gender equality and women’s empowerment is integral to each of the 17 goals. Only by ensuring the rights of women and girls across all the goals can we achieve justice and inclusion in economies that work for all.

Therefore, one of the basic requirements in our patriarchal, caste and class ridden Indian society is education to change attitudes towards women and the lower castes in society.

Gender sensitivity and awareness of basic human rights has to be integrated into the entire education system to ensure social change towards real integrated development in India. While the Indian Government has set aside 100,000 crore (1 trillion) rupees to step up investments in research and related infrastructure in premier educational institutions, including health institutions to impart quality education to the students in the country, there is no thought given to social education that is vital for the development of women in keeping with the SDGs 2030.

Basic education in rural areas is completely neglected in “Shining India”. Gender Sensitivity courses or Women’s Studies which should be made compulsory in University education remains an optional subject.

The only way to change the reality of women and the girl child in India is a multipronged approach in education to change negative social attitudes towards women as well as to empower them to live as autonomous persons in their own right.

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