Before we shout slogans, share pages on social media and sign petitions for millions of missing girls, let us take steps to save the girl child and not limit their value to the days set apart on the calendar. Let us make it a point to include empowerment in our conversations
If you want to know the value of a child, ask a childless couple yearning to have one. Ask the value of a girl child from a father who has only sons. Similarly, ask the value of a male child from a mother who has only daughters. The value of any child, or gender-preference of a child, is circumstantial — doesn’t remain uniform across parents and families. But these are natural parental preferences, uninfluenced by any external or societal pressures.
The reality, however, is more complex. Often parental preferences are subjected to and shaped by social pressures steeped in social preferences and norms that have resulted in lopsided sex ratio at birth (SRB) in the country.
In India, SRB, defined as the number of female births to every 1,000 male births, has for decades remained significantly below the natural ‘sex ratio at birth’, which as per the World Health Organisation (WHO), is often considered to be around 950, that is, on an average, there are 105 males for every 100 females at birth.
A recent report by NITI Aayog, entitled ‘Healthy States, Progressive India’, that ranks States along with several health indicators, pointed out that India’s SRB is less than 950 in 17 out of 21 States. In eight of these States, this ratio is less than 900. These eight States (Haryana, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh) are in northern and western parts of the country.
Further, it is disturbing to note that in 17 out of 21 States, this ratio has declined between the base year (2012-14) and reference year (2013-15). This decline is not specific to any region but is seen across the country. However, three States that have defied this decline are Bihar, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. In Jammu & Kashmir there was no change. Three of these four States continue to have SRB less than 900 (Bihar is the only exception).
To remedy this, the report suggested two measures: First, to effectively implement the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act. Second, to take appropriate measures to promote the value of a girl child. The first one is a regulatory measure which can be implemented relatively quickly by States while the second relates to socio-economic development leading to girl/women empowerment which can be achieved only over a longer term.
While regulatory tightening will have some positive effect on the SRB, the needed change will not come without the change of mindset that places the same value on the girl child as on the boy child.
How to promote the value of the girl child? Well, socio-economic development, that brings greater economic prosperity, improved education, greater exposure to different cultures, does loosen the grip of traditional thinking and practices as people adopt cosmopolitan views and liberal values. However, one cannot rely on the socio-economic development which is a gradual process to improve SRB.
The need for affirmative action too has been long acknowledged. Accordingly, successive Governments have made interventions aimed to empower women. The Modi Government too has come up with a few programmes such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (save daughter, educate daughter) — a pan-India programme aimed at empowering girl child through education.
Similarly, programmes such as Stand Up India for scheduled caste/tribes as well as women entrepreneurs and Mudra Yojana Scheme for women are aimed at promoting women entrepreneurs by providing them easy access to credit/loan for income generation. However, these schemes need to be implemented effectively to have a noticeable impact on the empowerment of girls and women.
The second strategy to promote the value of the girl child is to build awareness and sensitise the public. Indeed, the Government has been undertaking intensive nation-wide advocacy and media campaigns aimed at challenging gender stereotypes and social norms.
To be effective, such national level campaigns need to be complemented by local strategies. For example, amplifying the effect of social messaging by co-opting local leaders whom people listen to.
Similarly, local role models must be created whom people can emulate. Here, the challenge is in creating positive deviants — that is, spotting or creating local examples where families have become successful even after defying prevalent social norms — so that others can draw inspiration from and follow the suit.
The main challenge though is that the people, who are to pursue local strategies, themselves need to be free from the social biases that they are trying to change. This challenge can’t be easily wished away.
The final strategy is to address other factors behind the observed social preferences and norms. These factors are to be found in the inheritance laws, matrimonial practices among others.
To deal with these, some of the measures suggested include having more stringent laws, preventing early child marriage through compulsory registration of marriages and so forth.
All the three strategies aimed at promoting the value of the girl child need to be implemented in earnest if we want the fertility behaviour to be guided by the number of children desired and not by their gender!
(The writer is a development economist, formerly with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank)