Simran, Anandi, Bhumika, Ekta, Sandeep, Mandeep. They could well have been just names added to India's millions of "missing girls". But thanks to an entire community, they were able to live. And pursue their dreams.
The 2011 Census brought the discouraging news that the child sex ratio in Rajasthan had fallen to 883 girls per 1,000 boys as against 909 in the 2001 Census. In this abysmal scenario, the only district that reported a slight increase was Sriganganagar - 854 per 1,000 boys, up from 850 in 2001.
Sriganganagar, at the northern tip of Rajasthan, bordering Pakistan, is a prosperous agricultural and business town inhabited mainly by Punjabis. In 2001, the district had the worst child sex ratio in the state, said Dr Meeta Singh, who has been working in the district since 2005, heading a programme to improve the situation in districts with the worst child sex ratio by mobilising the community against sex selection.
The districts were Sriganganagar, Hanumangarh, Jaisalmer, Jhunjhunu and Alwar. While the methods followed to educate local communities were almost similar in all the districts, Sriganganagar has been the success story, mainly because the entire community rallied around the cause.
Initially, no one was interested in talking or listening about the issue. The preference for boys was deeply entrenched and it was just an accepted thing to go for abortions if a second or third girl child was conceived, says Singh.
In November 2006, there was a community wedding at a gurdwara. "We told the organisers, why not have an eighth phera in which the couples would take a vow against sex selection? The Gyaniji and Panditji administered the oath to 21 couples before more than 1,000 people. This was the first time the issue was taken up at a public forum," she recalls.
Nisha Chauhan, district coordinator of the NGO Urmul, which has also been working to end female foeticide, says that slowly a movement has built up.
"The community began to perform thali bajana to celebrate the birth of a girl child which earlier only happened at the birth of a boy. The panchayat wrote to clinics and warned them against carrying out sex selection. It also sent out congratulatory notes to parents of newborn girls. People used to proudly display these notes after framing them," says Chauhan.
Others, too, have joined in. Since 2006, the Ganganagar Chamber of Commerce has been organising a Kanya Lohri which has today become a major cultural event in the city. From humble beginnings, where some schools came forward and offered free education to girls, scholarships worth Rs 1.5 crore were pledged in 2010. In 2012, this touched Rs 3 crore.
Afsana Begum's daughters Simran, 12 and Fiza, 10 have benefitted from the scholarships. "I used to worry about their education but now I am happy that they are getting good schooling. I want them to be independent," says Afsana, who teaches at an adult education centre.
In probably a first of its kind effort, a eunuch, too, has chipped in. "The eunuchs used to earlier only visit houses where boys were born. But I would go to houses where girls were born and sing and dance and take badhai but also give them shagun," says Gauri Sharma, a 22-year-old eunuch.
She has adopted two girls from families who did not want them and is educating them in Delhi.
Women are standing up to bear daughters. For instance, when Jasbir Kaur, a nurse, conceived triplets, her husband insisted on an abortion. She refused, and left him. Kaur gave birth to her daughters, Sandeep, Mandeep and Pradeep Kaur. She now lives with them in Mauran village.
The Sriganganagar movement, if it can be so labelled, shows that social evils can be overcome with a multi-pronged strategy and sustained community support.
From religious leaders, the panchayat as well as the chamber of commerce,
the participation of various stakeholders has acted like a carrot and stick policy. People do not disregard religious leaders or the panchayat and the scholarships offered at the Kanya Lohri have acted as motivations. Chauhan, who also adopted a daughter from a poor family, says the rallies and workshops have led to a decline in the number of sex-determining ultrasounds. "Doctors and families have become aware and fewer tests are happening now. The fee has gone up from Rs 4,000 to Rs 12,000," he says. Says Dr Singh: "It's a mission for me. But it was a passion for the team that worked for years in the villages."