At every step of a girl child’s journey, she is challenged and threatened from progressing forward. Even before she is born, the girl child comes face to face with a challenge that she cannot fight – her parents’ decision to not end her life via illegal sex-selective abortion. As she continues through life, she faces rejection, discrimination and fear if she expresses ambition. To address this, it is important to acknowledge these challenges in detail. This will enable society to identify measures to make the girl children of today, into tomorrow’s successful and healthy women.
Understanding the fate of girl child
In infancy, the girl child’s biggest challenge is sex-selective abortion. India’s rapidly deteriorating sex ratio (2011: 918 girls for 1,000 boys) is infamous across the world. It’s the foremost cause is societal ‘value’ of a girl child. While India has legally banned prenatal sex testing and girl child foeticide, it is still in practice across affluent and poor strata of Indian society. If not aborted, girl children are abandoned in infancy. As per a 2011 finding, 90% of 11 million abandoned children are girls. Even if they are saved by an orphanage, low rates of adoption for girl children persist.
Even before they turn 10, girls face difficult challenges like forced marriage, child labour and female genital mutilation. Girls are also sold into child labour by parents due to their financially desperate circumstances, which convince them to use their children as a means of revenue generation. This is why child labour is common for children from homes ‘below poverty line’ children (as high as 80%) and they rarely reach class 5. They are often forced to work in unorganised sectors, like the beedi industry. Even with rising primary school enrolment (98% of rural Indian children in 2015 from 80-85% in the early 2000s), the share of Indian girls has not been adequately represented. Further, the majority of students who drop-out of school before completing primary education (UNESCO 2012 data) are girl children.
A popular saying explains the mindset to the girl child. “Bringing up a daughter is like watering a plant in another’s courtyard.” It not only explains how the marriage has been made the focal point of a girl’s life but also the belief that raising a girl child is a waste. Child and early marriage is common in rural India, and to prepare them for a rapidly upcoming married life, girl children are made a part of household tasks, instead of studies and sports. Girls marry younger than boys in India, and are less likely to attempt any kind of education, formal or vocational, in the future. Expected to only become a future housewife, a girl’s earning potential is considered negligible and investment on her capabilities pointless. Held back, women largely experience lower socioeconomic status in their communities. They are also robbed of self-reliance as they have no useful skills beyond homemaking.
Understanding the urgency needed to address India’s shocking sex ratio, and its linkage to the status of the girl child, the government ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ programme is working to provide survival, safety and education to the girl child. The government has also meant schemes to ensure their security and well-being. These address female foeticide and female education (under ‘Ladli, Laxmi Ladli and Kishori Shakti Yojana schemes), maternal health (under the Samriddhi Yojana), and medical care (Ayushmati Yojna), among others. To empower the girl child, India will need to change the mindsets of influencers, family members, teachers, and elders.