Will We Merely ‘Celebrate’ National Girl Child Day On 24th Jan, Or Will We Take Action?

The Indian girl child stares at an uncertain and uphill journey right from birth, and faces discrimination, dismissal, and rejection at every step. What can we do better?

Trigger Warning: This speaks of violence against girls and women by their own families, and may be triggering to survivors.

We have apparently “progressed”, but do our girl children enjoy an equal place in Indian society?

A 2nd daughter

The animated beat of the dhaak drums up excitement among the young children scampering about in the wide courtyard of Chowdhury Mansion, soaking up the spirit of Durga Puja in Kolkata. The grand idol of the Devi, resplendent in her festive finery, occupies centre stage in the pandal. As the family priest takes a short break in between the rituals, a young house help beckons all the children inside the house. It’s time for the annual affair when Boro Ma, or the grand matriarch, distributes new clothes to the children of the expansive Chowdhury family.

All the youngsters, from toddler to teen, fall in line in the spacious living room, an eager excitement lighting up their faces. Boro Ma enters the room with two maids and starts handing over the tastefully gift-wrapped packages to the children, one by one.

At the end of the queue stands a fair, coy, diminutive figure, peeping from behind her older sister. The lady reaches the end of the line. As the little girl, *Shomasri, steps forward with an outstretched hand, Boro Ma abruptly turns back and walks out of the room with her usual authoritative gait. The girl looks both flummoxed and crestfallen, as the other children revel in their goodies. She is too young to understand what just transpired. Her only fault — she is the second daughter born to her mother, and hence, deserves no affection or acceptance.

A child herself, yet…

An economically disadvantaged family comes to Bangalore from another state, with dreams in their eyes. It comprises a couple and their three young children aged twelve, eight and four. The husband finds work as a security guard in an upscale apartment while the wife is employed as a domestic help.

The two younger children stay at home (no funds to send them to school) while the pre-teen daughter, *Lakshmi, is packed off to baby-sit a toddler having affluent working parents. A child herself, this young girl has no inclination or expertise to handle the tantrums of the pampered baby, but continues nevertheless, just to supplement the family income.

This continues for two years. In certain moments of complete disinterest and helplessness, she seeks the company of a young male housekeeping personnel, mainly to vent out her frustration. Before her naïve mind can reason, she decides to follow her nubile heart and elopes with the guy. Within a year, she delivers a pre-term child. The hospital staff inform the police and the new dad is taken into custody – both parents are under age. With extreme difficulty, the girl’s parents cough up one lakh rupees to the police and get the case closed. The young couple is let off with a warning. Within three months of her delivery, the mother takes up maidservant duties in an apartment to buy medicine and supplements for her undernourished baby.

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“What’s the point in educating a daughter?”

In one of the newly developed residential areas of Bangalore, a family is picking up the threads of existence in the post-Covid era. They had lost their means of livelihood during the prolonged lockdown. Penury forced them to sell off their agricultural land in the village and take up odd jobs in the city.

Now that things have stabilised a little, the parents get their son admitted to an English medium school while *Uma, the daughter, is kept at home to do the chores, as both parents are employed. The boy is not academically inclined and grudgingly attends school. The girl has studied till the eighth grade and was faring quite well in her earlier institution. Requests by acquaintances and well-wishers to enrol the girl into a government school (to avoid high expenses) are met with a flat refusal.

What’s the point in educating a daughter when she’s meant to get married eventually and leave the house? At least the son will support us in our old age if he gets educated and holds a good job, is the rationale offered to anyone who questions this equation.

The curious case of the girl child’s interests ignored on purpose?

The above are three cases I have personally witnessed. Diverse incidents, different backgrounds, varied locations – but what is that one common thread that binds them all together? It is the curious case of the girl child’s interests being purposefully given a miss. Be it Shomasri or Lakshmi or Uma, it is invariably the daughter who is being deprived of a shot at a better life. Or the little, undiluted joys which every child dreams of. All because of her XX chromosomes – a reason which she has no control over.

India, in spite of her significant all-round development, still lags behind in the domain of nurturing and protecting her young girls. Even today, most pregnant parents secretly hope for a male offspring, especially if it is their first. The exultation surrounding the birth of a child is directly related to its gender. The arrival of a baby boy calls for a robust celebration; a girl child is given a tepid welcome. And in many cases, the family actually laments the birth of a daughter. Isn’t parental and familial love supposed to be all-encompassing and unconditional for a new born, irrespective of gender?  Perhaps not, in our country, as several studies show.

Will we just celebrate the National Girl Child Day, or will we make any difference?

India celebrates the National Girl Child Day on 24 January every year.

The concerted efforts of the administrative and medical agencies to ban pre-birth sex determination seem to have borne fruit and the Child Sex Ratio (CSR) of live births shows an upturn for girl babies. Female foeticide and infanticide, a common social malaise till a few years back, have diminished but marginally.

Having said that, the girl child stares at an uncertain and uphill journey right from birth. Discrimination, dismissal, and rejection doggedly impede her every step – whether it is her share of a nutritious and filling meal, her need for everyday essentials, her desire to be educated, her choice of career, or even her freedom of attire, movement and speech. The tradition of considering girls as paraya dhan stymies their educational and professional aspirations. They are often denied access to health care facilities and have to make do with ineffective home remedies or neighbourhood quacks. Under-age marriage and subsequent childbirth take a toll on their health. When the bride is a vulnerable pre-adult, she is unable to resist or protest. Hence, domestic violence becomes easier to perpetrate.

In the marginalised pockets, the problems branch out and amplify in more alarming ways. Child trafficking, adolescent pregnancy outside wedlock, and sexual abuse are common inhibitors in the way of a safe and happy childhood. Since access to education and awareness are almost zilch, most of these cases go unreported. And the trend continues with impunity.

Till when will the girl child be considered a burden?

In a society weighed down by draconian patriarchal diktats, a girl is always considered a burden, an outlier, whose sole purpose is to satisfy her husband, uphold family honour, and bear legitimate heirs to continue the family name. In most families, girls are given lessons in moral propriety, social etiquette and homemaking skills right from their childhood. Education, career choice, travel experiences, a liberal mindset, and economic self-reliance figure very low in the hierarchy of priorities. Hence, from a tender age, she is groomed and conditioned to embrace a life of care giving, birthing and nurturing. Sacrificing her own dreams, desires and necessities at the altar of family or spousal demands is a common narrative for a young girl, even in the so-called ‘modern’ and ‘educated’ echelons of society.

In India, right to education forms a basic right for children of both genders, on paper. But in reality, not all girls are enrolled for their elementary education. By the time, they reach high school, the numbers further dwindle. Similarly, there is a number of beneficial schemes offered to the girl child by the government to facilitate her education, healthcare, vocational training and in some states, marriage. But the actual implementation of these benefits is still fraught with roadblocks, thanks to unscrupulous middlemen and in many cases, greedy parents.

On a brighter note, times are changing and the prospect of an emancipated, accommodating society now seems closer than ever before. Equipped with the boon of education and empowerment, our girls can be the instrument to mobilise far-reaching changes in every possible domain. All they need is a push…that one golden chance to play on a level ground…one, that has been purged of discrimination, oppression and gender inequality.

A fresh year has just begun. It harbours 365 renewed opportunities to celebrate, protect and nurture our young girls. Let all the Shomasris, Lakshmis and Umas write a new chapter in their lives. They are raring to go. The onus is on us to listen to their voices, to believe in them, and to help them dream big. Can’t we make this happen? Together, let us smash the obstructive stereotypes and move beyond the rhetoric. Our girls are precious. As we observe another National Girl Child’s Day, let us gift them a world filled with extra sunshine, peals of laughter, larger rainbows, and abundant reasons to feel special and loved.

*(Names changed to protect privacy)

Editor’s Note: 24th January is National Girl Child Day. These girls are going to be half the future population of our country. Are we making their lives better? We present a series of thoughtful and informative posts this week. If you have something you would like to contribute, log into your contributor dashboard today.

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About the Author

Urmi Chakravorty

Urmi Chakravorty is a military spouse and former educator, who has imbibed lasting life lessons from both her roles. Her articles, stories and poetry have found space in The Hindu, The Times of India, Women' read more...

21 Posts | 25,044 Views

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