New Delhi: The struggle of a girl child begins even before the day she is conceived. Female infants are still found dumped in the trash, while unborn foetuses continue to be snuffed in the womb. She is ‘lucky’ if she is allowed to be born. Even after birth, the girl child faces discrimination and oppression. She is not provided with proper nutrition compared to her male siblings, her education is not given much importance, she is often expected to stay at home and do household work. A girl child in India is often seen as a liability, a ‘burden’ to pass on. After marriage, the trials faced by women do not end as she continues to face oppression and even violence in her marital home. The unwanted girl child is India’s greatest shame. Given the prevailing influence of patriarchal values, right from their birth, far too many girls bear the brunt of gender inequality and gender stereotypes. Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel Laureate says,
Gender discrimination and abuses, injustice against girls is a serious stigma in India and is a serious problem in India that is deep-rooted. A multifold approach is needed to ensure that state has those laws to bring justice in society, it also requires adequate budgetary allocation for girls education, health, well-being, and collective responsibility of social organisations to speak out that girls are not less than boys.
India celebrates National Girl Child day each year on January 24. The day, an initiative of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, focuses on the need to address the challenges that girls face in Indian society due to gender biases. The day also aims to promote awareness about the rights of the girl child and to increase awareness on the importance of girl education, and their health and nutrition.
To understand the legal laws and rights of girls and women, Pink Legal, India’s first ever website dedicated to the issue, aims to empower women and reduce gender inequality. Manasi Chaudhary, Founder and CEO, Pink Legal says,
We at pink legal are creating legal awareness and making women aware of their rights, we help them by answering their legal queries for free, we have a helpline where women can speak to our lawyers and also connect with our lawyers.
According to a 2019 report by United Nations Children’s Fund titled Ending Child Marriage: A Profile Of Progress In India, the country is home to over 223 million child brides. India accounts for about a third of the global incidence of child marriage, a practice that infringes on the rights and capabilities of adolescents, mostly young girls. Then, early pregnancies also result in poor maternal and child health. The government’s National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21) estimated that about one in four young women (23.3 per cent) aged 20-24 years in the country have been married before 18 years of age.
A common problem is forced marriage in India where a lot of young girls are forced into marriage for various reasons. The law in India clearly states that no one can force another person to marry someone and it is your own choice if you wish and whom you wish to marry, adds, Manasi Chaudhary.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem of child marriage further. Due to various socio-cultural and economic barriers, a large number of adolescents in the country are out of school, are married early, work in vulnerable situations, are sexually active, and are exposed to peer pressure.
When it comes to the girl child, many cases of trafficking, sexual abuses, online pornographic material, and child marriage have increased as parents think the girls are a burden but the pandemic prefers that they marry their girls early. This has a multiple impact – physical, social, economic, mental and psychological impact on girls, adds Kailash Satyarthi.
There are many ways in which a girl is discriminated against right from womb to tomb. Violence against women and girls takes many different forms, including domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, early and forced marriage, sex trafficking, so called ‘honor’ crimes and female genital mutilation. COVID-19 has exposed the fault lines of gender equality, with increases in the incidence of domestic violence during lockdown.
1.5 per cent of young women in India within the age bracket of 18-29 years have experienced sexual violence by the time they turned 18, states NFH-5. At least 29.3 per cent of married women (18-49 years) have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by their spouses.
Dr S. Shantha Kumari, President, Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India, Treasurer Elect FIGO shares with us,
When it comes to the girl child, unfortunately violence starts from the pre-birth phase- abortions to female infanticide to battering of a woman when she is having a girl child and also when the girl child is growing we find gynecologists are the first point of contact if she has a problem. In fact she turns to us the the gynecologists and obstetrics so, we need to sensitise the gynecologists.
While Sustainable Development Goals seek to achieve gender equality, and empower all women and girls, India is home to millions of ‘out-of-school’ children, with girls accounting for a substantial chunk. Nelson Mandela has said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. Taking that further is the saying, “if you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation”. Educating a girl child, or an adult woman, has multiple benefits. Like a ripple in the pond, those benefits extend outwards till they reach the entire community, and play a vital role in its overall economic prosperity. There are many trusts and organisations working towards educating the girl child. Nanhi Kali is one of them.
Nanhi Kali, founded in 1996 by Anand Mahindra to empower women through education has impacted more than 5 lakh girls in 14 states. Sanyogita has been a part of Project Nanhi Kali (PNK) for the last three years. A class 8 student of Sanjay Nagar Hindi School, her father Sanjay Rajbhar works as an auto rickshaw driver, while her mother Neetu is a homemaker. She has three brothers and two sisters and the family lives in Govandi, Mumbai.
Nanhi Kali, Sanyogita thanks Nanhi Kali for educating her and helping her move forward. She says,
I have learnt a lot in the last three years, since I have been coming here. The kit has many things that help us. I want to become a doctor. I am the oldest in my family. I want to make something of my life, become somebody and help my family and the poor. Since my education is being taken care of Nanhi Kali, there is less pressure on my parents. They are very happy. Earlier girls couldn’t study, but now they can with support from Nanhi Kali. Earlier, girls weren’t educated. Their parents didn’t have money for it. Here, we are taught free of cost.
Tanzim Bano too deeply cherishes her experience and time at Project Nanhi Kali. Her dream now is to use that experience to help many other girls like her. She shares,
My father works as a gas delivery man. My mother is a homemaker, and I have a younger sister and brother. My dream is to become a teacher so that I can teach children, just like I am studying and being taught here.
The girls have also been given a kit. Talking about the contents of the kit, Tanzim says,
The kit has helped me a lot. Besides stationary, books etc, the biggest surprise in the kit was the sanitary pads as that has been a big help for my health; also, the tab has helped in my studies. My parents couldn’t have afforded it.
Additionally, Nanhi Kali, Tanzim Bano’s father, Md. Mohammad says,
Since my daughter has been studying in Nanhi Kali, I have been able to save a lot since her education is free-of-cost.
Nanhi Kali firmly believes that a girl’s education correlates with the overall well-being of the nation. The good news is that India’s access to education for girls has improved tremendously over the last seven decades. The female literacy rate has risen from 9 per cent during Independence to about 65 per cent in 2011. While the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the fight for rights and education of the girl child putting the future of millions of girls at risk, Nanhi Kali is ensuring that learning must continue.
Sheetal Mehta, Trustee and Executive Director, K.C. Mahindra Education Trust says,
We support underprivileged girls to complete 10 years of school from standard 1 to 10. And every girl in this project gets access to a digital device which is pre-loaded with smart educated content. In addition, we provide the girls with a school bag, school supplies kit and older girls get feminine hygiene material so that they can attend school with dignity. I am happy to say that during COVID, despite prolonged school closures Nanhi Kali remained engaged with all the girls ensuing uninterrupted learning for the girls.
Girls’ education is an important factor in economic development — numerous studies have demonstrated that a nation’s GDP increases with female education.
Educated girls and women contribute to a nations development and if you want to pursue socio-economic growth its critical that these women participate in the economy; the more women who work, economies grow and women’s economic empowerment productivity and positive development outcomes, adds Ms Mehta.
In Gurugram, Maanas School is also playing a role in empowering communities, by educating the underprivileged and developing their skills. Jyoti Nikore, Executive Trustee, Maanas Shiksha says,
We started with two students and gradually increased to 25 students. We got volunteers and then Indigo funded us and then we kept growing and now we have 200 children studying with us. Our school is primary so we help students get a scholarship and for those who are that good in studies, we train them in some skills so that they can do something in life. Girls who are educated are married but also earning a lot.
Many like Ananya Chatterjee have benefitted from Maanas school. Sharing her experience with NDTV, Ananya from Maanas School in Gurugram says,
When I was 12 years old , I didn’t know any language other than Bengali. But here they taught me Hindi and English. Every three months there would be a test at Maanas school. Then I was admitted in Maanas, and they paid my fees. I am now in class 12, and they are still paying my fees. I have also just passed a dental course. My sister couldn’t study and she got married early. I am grateful that Maanas supported me, or else I would have been married, just like my sister. It is important to educate girls. Like boys, we too need to move forward, and our parents should understand that they should not get their daughters married early in life.
“If Maanas had not helped, my daughter wouldn’t have studied. I have three daughters, I got one married earlier but the other two are studying, and we are getting a lot of support from Maanas. I couldn’t educate my older daughter; I couldn’t pay her dowry. So, her family killed her”, adds Mamta, Ananya’s mother.
While the Government of India has programmes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padao, Skill India Mission, POSHAN Abhiyaan and Digital India Mission, localised approaches need to be worked out for different and diverse parts of the country. The experience of violence reduces sharply when girls are educated, so keeping them in school will help them have a better chance for safety and security, access to health and education, and the capability of making their own life choices and decisions. Education is key. Similarly by breaking the cycle of early marriages, premature pregnancies will be diverted, and intergenerational cycle of anaemia will be averted, building healthier generations. Kailash Satyarthi adds an important point that,
It’s a paradox, we worship deities like Durga, Laxmi, and Saraswati but on other hand, we abuse them. That duality has to vanish; we have to build social awareness, take urgent action so that girls are treated equally.
B.R Ambedkar has said, “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved”. A country that empowers women empowers every individual. To have an empowered woman, it is important that we start with the girl child, one needs to look at the girl child as a woman of tomorrow. The position of the girl child cannot be looked at in isolation. We must start with protecting the girl child, ensuring that her birth is greeted with joy, and she receives all the care and love needed to grow to her full potential. As a woman, we need to work to ensure that she gets every opportunity to realise her potential. By celebrating, protecting, and educating the girl child, we empower her. By empowering our daughters, we empower our communities which means empowering the nation. So, let us spread awareness and change mindsets to ensure that communities and families welcome and celebrate daughters.
You can listen to the full Banega Swasth India podcast discussion by hitting the play button on the Spotify player embedded above.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, that is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.