NEW DELHI — A keen observer of India's fluctuating gender patterns has painted a grim picture of the country's falling child sex ratio (CSR), saying it could worsen in the 2021 census as the patriarchal mindset is spreading across India and is not just confined to the north.
"Earlier, it was an urban phenomena in northern states like Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. But the patriarchal mindset is spreading across India – even in the east and northeast," author and teacher Bijayalaxmi Nanda who has been working on gender equality for about two decades, told IANS in an interview ahead of the launch of her book "Sex-Selective Abortion and the State" (Har-Anand/Rs 795/pp 343) on International Women's Day March 8.
The teacher of political science and gender studies in Delhi University's Miranda House said the CSR will continue its falling trend of several decades in the 2021 Census. The sex ratio for children up to six years was 971 girls per 1,000 boys in 1981. It kept falling and was 945 in 1991, 927 in 2001 and 919 in 2011.
"There might be slight improvement in some states like Maharashtra and some districts in Haryana that were marked as worst performers due to the state's attention, but the overall figure is likely to be worse as several states, including Gujarat and those in the east, are experiencing a worsening scenario," said Nanda, the mother of a daughter studying in the U.S. and whose husband is a civil servant.
Nanda has incisively analyzed the government's countering of gender discrimination in her book. Having been an activist for several years, she has critically examined the policies, programs, laws and schemes that have been unveiled by the state to improve the situation.
"Though preference for a male child was there even in the east, better access, availability and affordability for sex-determination and sex-selective abortion is worsening the child sex ratio," said Nanda. "Rising aspirations, smaller families and easy access in rural areas have narrowed the urban-rural gap in CSR."
Overall, she felt the state has miserably failed in strictly implementing the laws as there is widespread violation of Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act across the country, including in the rural areas. "The doctors lobby is very strong and they have political blessings."
Nanda said while new reproductive technologies like sperm separation, diagnostic facilities and illegal abortion centers came up wherever there was demand for such services, irrespective of the law, the growth of such facilities and rising affordability created its own demand where there was none.
"The law can at best control the supply side but it requires an attitudinal change for removing the demand for such services. And, the obstacles to mindset change relate to sexual insecurity among families for the girl child, marriage (an expensive affair) mandatory for respect of women and employment as many women are unemployable due to the low quality of their education," said Nanda.
"Instead of concentrating on just the numbers – improving the ratio – women should be valued as equal citizens. Slogans like 'Save your daughter' reinforce the stereotype that daughters are liabilities, (that) they need protection," she added.
At the same time, Nanda supported the second part of the "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" initiative that aims to generate awareness and improve the efficiency of welfare services intended for girls. "It's an interesting scheme that combines the element of law (PCPNDT) and education. But such schemes require dynamic leadership."
Nanda's recommendations follow a syncretic feminist perspective that emphasizes on addressing the "3 As" for tackling the aversion to daughters – Assets, Autonomy of women and girls, and Aging.
"She should have control of assets, property rights and employment for tackling the aversion for daughters and also protect them from violence. Her autonomy should be enhanced to provide bargaining power, right to assert, make choices, improve physical safety and mobility. And, finally, if we have social protection for the aged, it will remove the need for a son as the only source of support," said the researcher.
A holistic approach engaging all stakeholders is needed to show empathy towards women, to schools where the syllabus and teaching inculcate gender equality, to the wider society where a community consciousness is developed through dialogues and media messages, she said.
As to when the country can provide girls their rightful place, Nanda said: "We can just hope for the day when we stop seeing daughters as 'paraya dhan' and fathers start celebrating daughters."