12 Challenges For The Indian Girl Child That Still Keep Her Chained To A Lesser Life

We could say that things have progressed in the last century, but deeply entrenched challenges for the Indian girl child still hold her down.

Falguni Nayar, Indra Nooyi, Janaki Ammal and several other women have managed to carve a niche for themselves in spite of the many hurdles that came their way. However, it is essential for us to analyse the inequality and the struggles that women grapple with at every stage of their life. It isn’t easy for a woman to find her feet when it feels like all the odds are stacked against her, and these come from the many challenges for the Indian girl child, that can grow into gigantic obstacles.

Also, for those who do not see these challenges for the Indian girl child around themselves because of their privileges, let us understand that a small fraction of our population lives in urban, educated, “progressive” families.  As per a survey conducted in 2021, 65% of the Indian population lives in rural areas, where due to a lack of exposure and curbed access to essential resources, the development of girls is hindered. This is also seen in a large proportion of the urban population not as fortunate as you or I.

Today, 24th January, is National Girl Child Day. On this occasion, here’s a look at 12 challenges for the Indian girl child, that prevent her from reaching her full potential.

Female foeticide

Discrimination against a woman begins much before she is born, right when the foetus is formed. Mass sex-selective abortions also called female foeticides are a major reason for the skewed sex ratio in our country.

After the introduction of foetal scans in India, the government became aware that this was contributing to a massive rise in female infanticides. Hence, the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act of 1994 was passed, making it illegal to determine the sex of the foetus unless necessary for medical reasons.

Apart from the rather appalling practice of foeticide, there are certain cultural practices that have been deeply rooted in our society which are inherently discriminatory in nature. My grandmother was born in a small village in the south of Tamil Nadu. She has told me that the elderly women in a family made a high-pitched trilling sound called ‘kulavai’ to mark an auspicious occasion back in her village. What she also shared, which irked my twelve-year-old self, was that ‘kulavai’ was only done on the birth of a male child. The birth of a daughter was never celebrated.

A lack of access to proper education huge challenge for the Indian girl child

In spite of women like Savitribai Phule being forerunners of today’s young literate women and women like Kalpana Chawla who could make us feel we can literally reach for the skies, there is still a large gap that must be bridged with regard to the education of women.

While some families don’t believe in educating their daughters at all, others make their son’s education priority number one. The foolish trope that a man must be the breadwinner of the family has been perpetrated for centuries together and has contributed to families turning a blind eye to the education of their girls. Even though several schemes such as the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ scheme have been launched for the benefit of the girl child, having access to a proper education still remains an aspiration, not a reality, for many women in our country.

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Menstrual taboos and myths that are still alive and well

Pliny the Elder wrote in the first Latin encyclopaedia that contact with menstrual blood turns new wine sour, kills hives of bees and rusts metal.

Menstruating women of the Gond tribe in India live in a separation hut even today. Patriarchal societies like the one we live in make mundane biological processes like menstruation a pervasive taboo, curtailing a woman’s mobility and progress. Though certain cultures celebrate the onset of periods in a girl, the cause of celebration is generally her fertility. It is barely ever an attempt to destigmatise periods.

Lack of proper resources and sanitation for menstruators

23% of Indian girls drop out of school after menarche, resulting in a permanent loss of control over their lives. The grim truth is that a large share of women still do not have access to the most basic of resources and facilities such as quality sanitary napkins. It is not unheard of for women to resort to cloth and sometimes even cow patties or goatskin in rural areas, to manage their periods.

Menstrual hygiene remains too unaffordable and inaccessible for many Indian women. It was only a few years back that the government revoked the 12% tax on sanitary napkins. This coupled with the unavailability of hygienic public toilets and clean water often hinders women from building a life on their terms.

Child marriage is still rampant

40% of the world’s child marriages occur in India, with most of them happening in West Bengal. The desire for a docile, innocent and obedient bride is a contributing factor. Even with ‘The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act’ of 2006, child marriages still continue to be rampant in certain areas without the bride’s consent.

Though many interventions were made against child marriages in the 1920s, everyone back then was only focused on the sexual health and general wellbeing of the boy. He was made the poignant victim while the girl was not spoken about. Today, the focus is on the girl child, since most victims of child marriage are girls.

Child sexual abuse and trafficking of young girls

Child sexual abuse is a reality for many unfortunate children, and more of the abuse happens by someone the child knows or trusts. Add to this the trafficking of children, which is closely linked to female foeticide and infanticide. While boys are also victims so many times, the larger burden falls on girls, and the legal system has also not been very helpful always – as evidenced from the child marriages still prevalent, and the way the burden of proving sexual abuse is on the victim/ survivor.

Till 2003, a more lenient rape sentence was allowed as per ‘The Indian Evidence Act’ if the survivor was deemed ‘immoral’.

Victim shaming and questioning a woman’s character based on her choice of clothing are very much prevalent in society. To add to that, women are still extremely hesitant to report crimes since they are worried about their image in society which is very strongly tied to their virginity and refrainment from any sexual activity.

Unequal division of household chores; the first to drop off the education grid

While most urban, educated, privileged households might find this hard to believe, it is the reality of many girl children who are expected to take responsibility of household and caregiving duties from a young age. Imagine this- a frail, young girl of barely ten years wiping the beads of sweat on her forehead as she slices vegetables and fries them, while simultaneously getting her younger siblings ready for school. Girls are forced to shoulder the burden of household chores in order to support the family while boys are sent to school to study.

In a moment of financial crisis, it is unfortunately always the girl child who is first stripped of her needs.

A gendered perspective of recreation while growing up

When a boy wants to have fun with his friends, our society views that as perfectly acceptable. However, many families are still very conscious of their reputation, which would somehow be at stake if their daughters went outside.

Instead of letting a young girl explore the world through her own eyes, she has to longingly watch her brother get all the exposure. She is either asked to contribute to actual household chores or play with toy crockery while nurturing baby dolls.

The vicious role of marriage in a girl’s life

This is one of the hardest challenges for the Indian girl child. A woman is hardly recognised for her own achievements. ‘Marriage’ somehow unknowingly becomes the central theme of her life.

From the moment a girl is born, the parents start saving money to buy jewellery for when she gets married. She is forced to acquire the skills deemed essential to play the role of the quintessential Indian bahu. Instead of sending her to co-curricular classes or sports meets, she is subjected to slogging in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother. She is viewed as a liability because of the dowry the family would have to pay while marrying her off. Fostering an environment in which a girl cannot be free even at home causes her to develop anxiety and take a step back from everything she could have otherwise done.

The son gets the better, bigger portion of food…

A couple of years ago, filmmaker Kiran Rao was in the news for her 10 second short films (called Thumbstoppers), both with powerful themes. One of them showed the nasty gender discrimination at households where a mother blatantly discriminates between her children on the basis of their gender. But it also brings us to the boy who is ready fight back and bring changes, starting from his own house. Watch it here.

Though often overlooked, nutritional discrimination is a harsh reality in several Indian families, with the male child being provided with quality food. Boys are given preference during meals, receiving larger portions and a wider variety of food. Girls on the other hand, do not receive their fair share of protein and vitamin rich foods that are integral to their healthy growth.

This is mostly because of the archaic belief that the boy is going to carry the lineage forward while the girl is going to get married into some other family.

Discriminated against in accessibility to healthcare

It is a well known medical fact that female infants are biologically more robust compared to male infants, but the girl babies have no chance against systematic discrimination.

Almost twice as many hospital visits are made by young boys when compared with girls. This is because the health of a boy is a family’s utmost priority while a girl’s health is neglected more often than not. Especially in rural areas where healthcare facilities haven’t been strengthened yet, people often don’t feel the need to travel that far when a girl is not keeping well. This, coupled with the lack of quality nourishment, is detrimental to the overall wellbeing of a girl child.

Financial discrimination – girls are taught less about the family’s finances, given fewer rights to have an opinion

Though there are several schemes aimed at gender parity, very little initiative is taken to improve a woman’s financial literacy.

Women are often not included while making major financial decisions. While many families discuss their business details with the male child, the girl is usually not provided with much insight. Financial literacy is integral to establishing complete independence and hence must be focused on. Unfortunately, even working women who earn their own money are kept in the dark about things such as monthly expenses. Family property, stock market investments and several other financial investments are often hidden from women due to the fear that financial literacy would make women less ‘obedient’.

There are many more factors that are challenges for the Indian girl child, and hold her back, chain her to a gruelling patriarchy. Change is happening, but is excruciatingly slow, unfortunately, and even regressing in places. One can only hope for a better future.

Image source: by Poltu shyamal from Getty Images Free for Canva Pro

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shreya krishnan

An engineering student with a thing for writing, I hope to become a force to reckon with in the world of media and journalism someday read more...

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