When India’s Resources Mobilize to Save a Girl Child

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When India’s Resources Mobilize to Save a Girl Child

Deepali Gaur Singh

In India, there are laws to prevent dowry, domestic violence, sexual harassment and child marriage. But in the country's social context, these laws aren't very effective.

Can you imagine India’s resources mobilizing to save a girl child? It is not impossible when you
come to think of it. For twenty-four straight hours the country came to a
virtual standstill when a two year-old girl
fell in to the shaft of a borewell
in a small village close to Agra in the northern
state of Uttar Pradesh. Something similar had happened with a little boy from
Haryana two years back and the nation had watched his rescue with mixed
feelings of horror and hope. Two years later – though not wiser from the
experience – similar incidents have occurred with alarming regularity. But
while little Prince’s (the boy from Haryana) ordeal did end happily, others have not been so lucky. And then suddenly there is yet more news of
another child who accidentally falls in to yet another unmarked borewell shaft.
This time it is a little girl. At a time when the country finds itself embarrassed
by the imbalanced child and adult sex ratios from across the states and the
government struggles to implement one policy after the other to plug the
problem, for the cynic in us the scenes of the nation’s resources being
utilized to save one little girl were dramatically poetic. The armed forces
were there and so was the local administration, the media and the entire community.

And then we are
rudely awakened from this poetic reverie by the jarring sounds of two sets of
parents squabbling over a child
swap at a Chennai
hospital. Both sets of parents are laying claim to the
boy child and neither is willing to accept the girl as theirs. Simply put, while
the fortunate boy has two possible families, the girl has already been orphaned
– a fate not quite different from scores of abandoned girls in the country.
Ironically, in a country where the religious divide is obviously evidenced so
frequently it hardly seems to matter to either of the parents – one a Hindu and
the other a Muslim – as long as what they take home is the boy. A DNA test will prove the paternity for both the children, but for the
girl, the ordeal has only just begun. She is bound to face discrimination at
every step of her life henceforth.

Apart from the denial of education – with
boys invariably enjoying priority in most matters – and nutrition, health care
and nurturing, the probability of the girl being married off at a very early age
to shift the "burden" on to the husband is also high. And this invariably
pushes her in to the cycle of early pregnancy, unsafe sex with the spouse (who
would be much older), multiple pregnancies and the absence of healthcare
facilities exponentially raising her vulnerability to STIs. What can one expect
from a family being forced to bring up a clearly unwanted child? And that
continues to be the manner in which little baby girls continue to be welcomed in
many households.

And even as the
passionately angry Minister for Women and Child Welfare claimed that parents
who abandon their girls "are fools," the fact is that for many parents it’s
better to be a fool now than suffer later. Besides, it is the ministry that
really systemized girl child abandonment by introducing the controversial palna (cradle) scheme, in which the government pledged to raise abandoned girl children.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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The Anti-Dowry Act (1961) has been in place for a long time. Yet, the act of
giving and taking dowry has become so inherently important to marriages in the
guise of "gifting" that not only are very few cases registered but also they are registered only
in retrospect when crimes are committed against the bride at her matrimonial

To add insult to an already injured women’s rights agenda, the Supreme
Court in a recent judgement
only served to further legally entrench dowry
by stating that gifts given by the wife’s side to the husband’s family even
after the marriage, like at the time of child birth or other such ceremonies, did
not constitute dowry. This is extremely important because dowry deaths do not
always happen within the first few years of marriage and dowry harassment follows a continuous pattern into decades of marriage. With instances
of dowry harassment continuing even after two decades of marriage, the judgement
is a clear case of misinterpretation of dowry. The unending demands and torture
for dowry have manifest in dowry deaths, suicides and mental and physical agony
for the victims as the penalty for non-compliance by the girl’s family. And
this is despite the existence of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence
Act, 2005 (PWDVA) enacted in 2006.

While laws
exist against domestic violence, there are very few convictions because they
continue to be treated as personal matters that need to be resolved behind
closed doors of the home rather than brought in to the public domain. And while
the husband carries no such restrictions on himself it becomes the burden of
the victim to also ensure that the family honor is not sullied even as the
abuse continues. Moreover, with huge age gaps between the husband and wife
(since girls are often married off much earlier) not only is it considered
correct for the husband to use violence to "discipline" his wife but the child
bride is hardly equipped to stand up to this violence in any way.

And though
there are laws that prevent child marriages its prevalence and practice is
evident from the presence of innumerable elected ministers and politicians at
mass marriages where minor girls have been married off. The traditional beliefs
that guide social realities, the complacency that steers the government machinery
and the fatalistic mindset that keeps the general populace alive means that the
struggle to change the status of women and the girl child is long, slow and
peppered with obstacles. Statistics point to a crime against
every three minutes: with a sexual harassment every 53 minutes and a
dowry death every 77 minutes, laws clearly are failing to protect women and
their rights.

Topics and Tags:

Children, girls, Girls' Rights