As India’s economy booms and its international influence soars, the status of women is falling behind that of many other countries, while the growing availability of sex selection technology is leading to some of the most distorted gender ratios in the world. Vaijanti lives in the city of Agra. She’s left her husband after his family pressured her, she says, into having an ultra sound scan to determine the sex of her second child. She fled to her parents’ home with her two young daughters. Now she can’t decide whether to return, or to try to make it on her own. In ‘No Country for Young Girls?’ tve takes Vaijanti on a journey around India to try to help her decide.
In the shadow of the Taj Mahal, Vaijanti must decide if she can leave her husband and make a life of her own. Vaijanti, who’s 27, fled her husband’s home in the city of Agra, after a bitter row – she already had one daughter, and his family suggested that she should abort another. But Vaijanti decided she’d had enough – and went ahead with the pregnancy.
Now she’s living with her parents, and two young daughters. But with no income of her own, she’s undecided whether to go back to her husband or not. Vaijanti wants to know if things are as bad for girls in the rest of India – why are so many families determined not to have girl children? If India is one of the world’s booming economies – thanks to its embrace of globalization- aren’t these old-fashioned prejudices dying out? Foetal scans to make sure the next child is not a girl is an illegal but common practice in India today. Figures suggest that around one million girls are being aborted every year due to sex selection. Experts warn that the next census could reveal a shocking gender imbalance. So, is India really a country where girls have a stake in the future?
Vaijanti is taking the first step in finding out – filing a criminal case against her husband and in-laws in court, but she’s unsure whether to press on. Vaijanti’s situation symbolizes the misery and dilemmas faced by millions of ordinary women in India forced by their husbands’ families to bear only sons. Despite huge economic constraints Vaijanti’s own family have backed her fully – unusual in most traditional homes.
Her father says: ‘In India everything is veiled in hypocrisy. They show devotion to a stone idol but not a living woman. They consider stone idols as goddesses, they offer them flowers and pray to them. But living women, they consider to be nothing even though they are the ones who give birth to future generations and nurture them.’
Life takes Vaijanti on a trip around India, seeing her country for the first time and discovering whether a girl in India really can make it on her own. Vaijanti soaks in the sights and sounds of a city, but she’s in for some surprises, because the rising number of female foeticides symbolizes something scary for development experts – the notion that a country can progress economically but stay stuck in the past socially.
The sex ratio in India’s capital is the most distorted in the country – 821 girls for 1,000 boys born. And disturbingly it seems that the wealthier the family, the more determined to screen out the girl foetus. Then Vaijanti travels to meet an exceptional woman, Jasbir Kaur, who refused to abort her triplets, all girls, despite pressure from her husband and in-laws. Fourteen years on, she has three confident and beautiful daughters, and works as a nurse.
Jasbir told her: ‘After the ultrasound I was told I had I had triplets and that too, three daughters. The lady doctor said we can help you have an abortion. That day itself I made up my mind that I would not abort’¦ My husband used to harass me and beat me. He believed that I would continue to stay with him. I said to him that I could manage on my own.’
And she has this advice for Vaijanti: ‘You must educate your girls and not lose courage. Don’t feel alone. You have your girls and their love. It is my daughters’ love that gave me strength. Giving a dowry will not assure happiness for your daughters, my mother had given me dowry. Happiness comes from education and getting a good-life partner.’
Millions of girls are still out of the formal education system, especially in India’s smaller villages and towns. Jasbir is doing the best she can to educate her daughters. Vaijanti hopes she can do the same for hers.
Vaijanti meets Renuka Chowdhury, the Indian Minister for Women and Child Development, who admits that the aborting of daughters is a very serious problem. ‘The machines are meant to benefit women but when people misuse this it is known as the dark ages. Due to this there is a nationwide shortage of girls. This is a very, very grave situation. In many places boys are unable to find girls to marry, because of this the nation will soon face an unimaginable crisis.’
Finally Vaijanti visits Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabramati Ashram in Gujarat. Gandhi had a different vision for Indian women. He inspired them to play a major role in the Indian freedom struggle. Gandhi’s followers say that if he had been alive today, Gandhi would have waged a non-violent struggle to stop the killing of girls.
Tridip Suhrud, writer and academic at the Ashram, says: ‘Bapu [Gandhi] saw women and femininity as repositories of the good in societies and the good in human beings. In fact his answer really would have been that if you really want to be a non-violent society, if you really want to lead a good life, we can lead a good life only if we face up to the femininity within each one of us.’
Vaijanti still cannot decide whether to go back to her husband, or to get a job and bring up her girls on her own. It’s still an impossible choice. But at least now she feels she can make it with a clearer mind.
UNFPA is the lead UN agency promoting gender equality for girls and adolescents. See their page on Millennium Development Goal 3 – Promote gender equality and empower women.
UNFPA is also concerned about the severe social consequences of Asian son preference, and have a page on Sex-Ratio Imbalance in Asia: Trends, Consequences and Policy Responses.
A report by Prof P M Kulkarni on ‘Estimation of missing girls at birth and juvenile ages in India’ can be downloaded from the UNFPA website.
UNFPA has also produced a short video on Girls gone missing in Asia.
UNIFEM runs a campaign ‘Say No to Violence against Women’.
Amartya Sen, who wrote a famous article on Asia’s ‘Missing women’ in 1992, more recently published an editorial on the subject in the British Medical Journal, Missing women – revisited.
You can read Renuka Chowdhury’s profile on the Parliament of India website
The British Government supports the Indian Government’s efforts to improve reproductive health and education, and has recently announced aid to back India’s plans to get all primary-aged children into school.
Music in this programme was provided by Audio Network.