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Marking The Day

We may well acknowledge the first International Day of the Girl Child in India - but let’s not dare assume that we have the right to celebrate it.

brunch Updated: Oct 20, 2012 17:30 IST
Seema Goswami

On the 11th of October the first International Day of the Girl Child was celebrated across the world. In India, too, we had the usual suspects releasing statements, attending functions, organising events to mark the day. But surely the irony of celebrating a day dedicated to the girl child could not have been lost on any of us. Not when more than 500 women have been raped since the beginning of the year in Haryana alone (and that’s just the cases that have been reported); when the figure for women being married off before they turned 18 stood at an astounding 60 per cent in Bihar; and when female foeticide is believed to have killed at least 10 million girls in the womb all across the country.

Yes, the girl child doesn’t really get much of a break in India. If she escapes being aborted, she arrives into a world that regards her as a burden. She is much less likely to finish her primary education than her brothers. She will probably be married off even before she attains her majority. And when she gets pregnant, the likelihood of her dying in childbirth is astonishingly high (more than 65,000 women die giving birth in India every year – or, in other words, every 8-10 minutes a woman dies in childbirth), assuming of course that the pregnancy is not terminated because she is carrying a girl child who needs must die before she can be born.

Despite all odds: Olympic medallist Saina Nehwal’s story is an exception – in contrast to the trials and tribulations of ordinary Indian women. (Photo: Jasjeet Plaha)

And thus the vicious circle continues, sucking each successive generation of women into its vortex of despair. I know what you’re thinking. Why paint such a bleak portrait of Indian womanhood? After all, there are plenty of women among us who are valued and cherished by their families, who are brought up as valuable members of society, who are educated, who go on to have worthwhile careers, and are both financially independent and socially secure.

Yes, of course, there are. And I number myself among them. But we are the lucky ones, the minuscule minority who were fortunate enough to be born into the right families and the right social class. If it wasn’t for an accident of birth, we could just as easily be among the 35 per cent of women who are not literate, the 47 per cent of women who are married off as minors, the 212 women in every lakh who die in childbirth because they don’t have access to medical facilities, the 7,00,000 girls aborted every year because they are simply the wrong sex.

When you think of the sheer numbers involved – considering that our population stands at 1 billion and counting – it’s clear just how bad things are for women in India.

It doesn’t really matter that we’ve had a woman President in Pratibha Patil or that the UPA is headed by Sonia Gandhi or that the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha is Sushma Swaraj. It is of no consequence that five states of the Indian Union – Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh – have (or have had) women chief ministers (in Jayalalitha, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Vasundhara Raje and Uma Bharati). Or that the world of finance has seen such power women as Chanda Kochhar and Naina Lal Kidwai running large institutions with aplomb. Or even that we have produced such world-class sportswomen as Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza.

The real champ: We have produced such world-class sportswomen as Mary Kom. (Photo: Prabhas Roy)

All of these are achievements that must be celebrated – as indeed they are – but there is no ignoring the fact that these are exceptions that provide a stark contrast to the trials and tribulations that ordinary Indian women have to suffer every day of their lives. And that they mean nothing to the mother living in a remote village who has to trek for miles every day to get drinking water for her family; to the women who have no access to sanitary napkins let alone comprehensive health care; to the new bride who is harassed to death by the dowry demands of her husband and in-laws; to the young girl who is first raped and then told that she ‘asked’ for it; to the widow who is forced out of her family home and sent off to Vrindavan to await death.

And it is particularly ironic that the UN is marking the first International Day of the Girl Child by drawing attention to the problem of child marriages at a time when the khap panchayats in Haryana have announced that girls should be married off at a young age so that they do not get raped (apparently, a mangalsutra also serves as a rapist-repellent in their strange, convoluted minds), a position that was rapidly adopted by such obscurantist political leaders as Om Prakash Chautala.

So, let’s not celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child just yet. Not until we have ensured that every girl in the womb gets a chance at life. Not until we have made the education of every young girl possible. Not until we have made provision for her health care through menstruation, pregnancy, child-rearing and menopause. Not until we have ensured that she gets paid the same wage for the same job as her male co-worker. And not until we have made sure that she has the liberty to make her own life decisions.

Until then, we can mark the International Day of the Girl Child in our calendars – but let’s not dare to assume that we have any right to celebrate it.

Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami

From HT Brunch, October 21

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