On Tuesday night, 19July, I attended the Laadli National Creative Excellence Awards for Social Change awards ceremony, sponsored by Laadli, Population First, and United Nations Population Fund. The event honored individuals and companies which created innovative media campaigns to improve the status of the girl-child in India. The status of women in India, as well as the rest of Asia, has never been high. But India has had a particularly hard time changing the cultural ideology behind the extreme devaluation of girls. Technology has made sex-selective abortions even easier, and, despite concerted police efforts to shut down sonography labs, the problem has persisted and even gotten worse. In fact the child sex ratio, measured as the number of boys versus girls in the 0-6 age range, has actually declined in the last decade, with 914 girls aged 0-6 existing for every 1000 boys.
Even more disturbing is, while the actual birthrate ratio has mildly increased – with 940 girls born for every 1,000 boys – many girls do not make it to their 6th birthday. Neglect, lack of nourishment, and lack of access to medical care result in the premature death of many girl-children. Raids on sonography labs cannot remedy this problem. Only the seemingly insurmountable task of changing the mindset of 1.2 billion people can help save the girl-child.
Many speakers invoked India’s changing place in the world, with its growing economy, population, influence and intense desire to be considered a fully developed nation. All of this economic progress is in stark contrast to India’s lack of progress on issues concerning women and girls and human rights in general. Extreme poverty is not the only social and economic problem keeping India from achieving its full potential. The societal disregard of female life plays a large role as well, and in fact prevents India (and any other country that does not value women) from achieving its full economic potential.
This extreme form of sex-discrimination is of course only one aspect of a global problem regarding the lower status of women in almost all societies. As the Minister of Health acknowledged at the event, women are undervalued all over Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in extreme and often deadly ways.
I’d like to add that women are most certainly undervalued in the rest of the world, as evidenced by the ongoing need for women’s right’s movements in every country. However, I did not have to fear that my parents would be disappointed and possibly deny me life simply because I turned out to be a girl en utero. In the US, I fight for equal pay, equal opportunity, equal access to health care, sexual and reproductive freedom, as well as many other forms of overt or tacit discriminations, but I didn’t have to fight to be born a girl. In fact, my parents were thrilled when they were pleasantly surprised with two strong, beautiful baby girls. Of course sons are still privileged in many families. There are still double standards. Sons have many more freedoms than daughters and worry their parents with their independent activities much less. But in my world girls are appreciated, loved and even cherished.
The question of how to change the centuries-old tradition of male preference is a daunting one that Laadli is working hard to address. It is not easy to reach the most rural of India’s communities, in which the sex ratios are often the worst. Many people are illiterate and have little to no interaction with technology. Getting a message to the masses of people has to be innovative and the message has to be clear. Enter the contestants of the Creative Excellence awards. They have taken their time, their expertise in advertising, video, audio and design, to create messages that are intended to be accessible and understandable to the majority of India’s population. While creating economic opportunities for women is a tried and true way of helping improve the status of women, in many poor communities, these opportunities that women in more affluent classes benefit from do not exist. The women in these poor communities are still tied to traditional roles, suffer a lack of schooling, and burden their families with dowries and the knowledge that they will one day leave the home to care for someone else’s family.
While the Minister of Health tried to disperse blame globally, indentifying the problems women face in the Middle East, South Asia, and China, this in no way absolves India from the responsibility of bettering its own treatment of women and girls. In fact, India’s sex ratios are some of the worst in the world and on the decline. This is not something a few accusatory words directed at other countries can undermine. Many other speakers expressed shame at their country’s inability to progress in this area. They related progress and modernity to how a country treats its women and girls, and feel India will always be a developing nation as long as these problems exist on this scale. While India may grow economically and militarily, it is stagnating socially in every community aside from the most elite and urban of communities.
Today, a country’s development is not only measured by its economic growth. Thanks to the Human Development Report, countries are now held accountable for their treatment of their own citizens. Specifically, the index used in the report measures the, “environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests.” And more and more the experiences of women and girls are being included in these measures through indices such as the Gender Inequality Index. India, though growing quickly economically, is holding itself back through deadly discrimination against women and girls. In India’s quest to reach the status of a developed country, it will have to do much more to increase the potential not only of it’s million of poor, but also of its millions of disadvantaged women and girls. It can start by seriously addressing its declining sex ratios and supporting ideology-changing campaigns such as those developed by Laadli.
Zara Rapoport is a summer associate at Gateway House.
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