‘Why force women to give birth to boys?’ asks Selfie with Daughter campaigner
The nurse gave me the news in a hushed tone on the intervening night of January 24-25, 2012. These three magic words brought a wide smile to my face, and made me jump in joy. I couldn’t make sense of the low-spirited reaction of the nurse. There was an air of despondency that she carried around herself, and I suspected that the news of my daughter’s birth had something to do with it. While leaving the hospital, I gave her some money as a token of appreciation and asked her to distribute sweets to the hospital staff. The nurse refused to accept the money. She said that she’d be scolded by the doctor for accepting money at the birth of a daughter.
“I would have happily accepted the money if the baby was a boy. Since it’s a girl, I can only take a little amount,” she told me. The birth of a boy in Haryana is celebrated by what is traditionally known as thali bajana — a ritual of beating a plate. Neighbours and relatives were shocked when my sister marked my daughter’s birth with the ritual traditionally reserved for a son’s birth.
When I went to distribute sweets among colleagues, everyone assumed that I had had a son.
I was quite shaken. The same day, I decided to check the sex ratio of my village and was left disappointed by the abysmal number. It was for the first time that the gravity of the situation struck me. While I had heard about these biases, I was never affected by them personally. My family was fairly progressive and these regressive notions never shaped my world view. It was only after my daughter Nandini’s birth that I was confronted with this ugly truth. I decided to do something to improve the situation, and approached the women of the village, asking them to share their experiences about the issue of female foeticide. They were, however, reluctant to even enter the chaupals. Traditionally, chaupals have been male-dominated spaces, and convincing women to occupy them proved to be a challenging task.
Many women backed out. Men from the village asked me to make women from my family volunteer. To allay their concerns, I convinced my sister Ritu to step forward. She was the first woman to speak at the forum and, seeing her, many others stepped in. For all my good intentions, I was aware that taking women into confidence was going to be a challenge. I got in touch with around 12-15 older women, and got them each to convince two more women to join us. Gradually, the message spread and more women joined our campaign.
After much coaxing, I was able to hold the country’s first ever chaupal around the issue of female foeticide. During my interactions with women, I learnt about the pressure that they faced from men in their families. They told me how family and society exerted insurmountable pressure on them to give birth to a boy.
The prejudice against girls was deep-seated. I decided to reach out to the khaps, hoping to gather their support for my cause. Khaps are influential bodies in northern India and their word carries weight. I called a maha khap panchayat where leaders from Rajasthan, UP, and other states came together. For the first time in my village, a khap panchayat was being held, and that too, with a difference. It was an unprecedented event — women were sharing and speaking from the same stage as the khap leaders.
Over the next few months, I initiated different campaigns with the aim of creating awareness about female foeticide, infanticide, and discrimination against the girl child. As the sarpanch of Bibipur, I also announced that women would get to decide how half the panchayat funds would be spent. This motivated them to take ownership and participate more in the campaigns.
I was aware that campaigns like these couldn’t stay confined to only one village. With the aim of expanding the scope of these programmes, I began to mobilise women in my village and convinced them to travel with me to other villages where they could spread awareness about gender rights. These initiatives didn’t go down well with the people of my village. Many people complained against me and opposed my efforts. Men from the village stopped our caravan and deflated the tyres of our buses. “He will mislead our women and encourage them to misbehave,” they said.
In 2015, I started a Selfie with Daughter campaign which found a mention in the Prime Minister’s monthly radio address. I launched the campaign on June 19, my birthday, by posting a selfie with my daughter Nandini. Selfies poured in, not just from Bibipur and other places in Haryana, but also from states across India and countries across the globe. Many people demonise social media, but through it, I was able to create awareness about these issues. I was called by the former president, Pranab Mukherjee, who invited me to talk about the campaign. I gave him an insight into how the campaign had become a cry for women’s empowerment.
I wasn’t always a crusader for gender rights. I was unfamiliar with the phrase female foeticide till I’d completed my master’s degree. Even at the time of contesting elections for the post of sarpanch, development was my only focus. However, I was always inspired by the struggles of my father, who was a government school teacher and wanted me to give back to society. He would often tell us how there were fewer girls in schools or how they never got the same opportunities as boys. These stories never quite left me, and when the time came to make a change, I knew that I had to rise to the occasion and do my bit.
At the time of my daughter’s birth in 2012, there were 37 girls in Bibipur for 59 boys. A lot needs to change. There is scope for improvement on the ground. I visit villages across Haryana to spread the message of women’s empowerment. In each village, I make a team of women called Team Lado. Over the coming three or four years, my plan is to take this campaign to the national level. There are more than 700 districts in the country and my dream is to have a Team Lado in each district. The larger goal is to mobilise these teams to usher in a revolution in all corners of the country.
The country may have gained independence in 1947 but its women still long for freedom. I want my two daughters, Nandini and Yashika, to grow up in a world that doesn’t differentiate between men and women. My daughters understand what I do, and hopefully, in the days to come, they’ll carry forward my message and help women reclaim the freedom that is rightfully theirs.
(As told to Sadia Akhtar. Sunil Jaglan features in the documentary ‘SON RISE’ – a film by National Award winning filmmaker Vibha Bakshi)