Gender equality: The right of every child
In Nalgonda, Telengana, there is a little girl who is mischievous, feisty and adored by her family. In 2015, she was born very early at 650 grams, one of the youngest preemies born in a government hospital. Her parents were committed to her survival and fought for it, supported by a dedicated team of doctors, nurses and front-line workers who brought them to the free Sick Neonatal Care unit. She has become an emblem of sorts for UNICEF India. It is our dream to see all families and every health system coming together in the combination of love and support in the way it did for Rishita.
There are a million girls a year in India who do not have Rishita’s luck. In 2019, UNICEF conducted research on gender-based discrimination and neglect among children age 0-6 and the results are sobering. Analysis of SRS data shows that 760,000 sex-selective abortions of female fetuses took place between 2015-2017. To put that in context, India’s national under five mortality rate is 900,000 deaths a year. We lost almost as many children to being born as we do after birth but while the reasons for the latter are multiple and complex (malnourished, young mothers, poverty, poor information, poor access to services) the reason for the former is singular: their gender. Interestingly, selective abortions are more common in wealthier districts. As more couples move onto two-children families, the likelihood of sex-selective abortions goes up.
After birth, Indian girls remain in danger even though they are usually physiologically stronger than boys. This is why, globally, according to reports by the UN Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation, the global under-five mortality rate of boys is higher than the under-five mortality rate of girls. The gap is highest in poor countries and lowest in developed countries but everywhere the direction is the same. Except India. India is the only country in the world where girls die more than boys in this age group. In 2017, that number came to 225,000 deaths.
One clear clue on how this is happening is gender gaps in treatment seeking. Globally, neonatal admission rates for girls is 48% but in India, where it should be 45% (because of the lower sex ratio at birth), the admission rate is 41%. That’s 37,000 sick neonates a year who should be admitted to district hospitals’ Sick Neonatal Care Units and are not.
For the girls who survive these dangers, life can still be fraught. Girls are approximately 30% more likely to be kidnapped than boys, more likely to go missing and when missing, less likely to be found, according to NCRB’s Child Track information. CARA, the central adoption agency, reports that baby girls are approximately three times more likely to be abandoned.
Even for girls who do not suffer such serious consequences, life is not equal. Studies show that parents spend more time and money on their sons than daughters. They are more likely to pay for their sons to go to private school, more likely to pay for their sons to have extra coaching, more likely to spend time with them after work, especially fathers. This is what the Economic Survey of 2018 referred to as India’s son preference – a deeply rooted, normalized difference in treatment of girls and boys.
You might be wondering why we are sharing these dire statistics about baby girls on International Women’s Day. The truth is this: we cannot change son preference or successfully advocate for equal value of girls and boys until women are valued as much as men. As a child rights organization, UNICEF is committed to equality for every child but our work can only go so far when children around the country are seeing how differently their fathers and mothers are treated in the household and outside it. Indian women have one of the lowest women’s workforce participation rates in the world and Indian men’s household and care work is among the least. For women who earn formal sector wages, they are paid 34% less than men for the same hours of same work. For the millions of women who work in the informal sector, their wages are often not in their control and don’t build productive assets. For every woman of every class, stepping out of the house is a continuous calculation of risk. No wonder then that women drop out of the workforce.
UNICEF, along with our sister agencies, are committed to gender equality. Together, we execute programmes and support policies to improve the situation of women and girls. We will be the first to say that we are not doing enough. Women’s empowerment is critical to children’s rights. India cannot achieve its goal of ending child marriage without successful women sarpanches, district collectors, business owners and doctors serving as role models for every adolescent girl and boy. We cannot achieve our goal of ending child mortality without health systems that employ as many women as men at every level. We cannot achieve our goal of every child well-nourished without fathers sitting down to feed and bond with their children. We cannot achieve our goal of every child in school until their homes and schools are populated with women who are decision makers. And we cannot achieve our goal of every child’s life being free from violence until they live in homes where there is no violence against their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters.
Rishita’s survival is the first step in her life. She will need her family’s support and her own strength to thrive into adulthood. UNICEF believes that we cannot achieve our goals for children without women and men being equal. This is why, on International Women’s Day, we are placing this evidence in front of you. Equality between women and men is just important for women and men, it is critical for almost half the world’s population, its children. Gender equality of women and men is essential. For every child.
- Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India Representative