The local community, especially men, have been roped into a project in 22 Maharashtra villages to stop female foeticide and discrimination against the girl child

In India, the irony never ceases. While the country venerates several female deities of wealth, learning and valour, it also practises blatant discrimination against the girl child. Going by statistics revealed by the census and various government as well as independent studies, it has been found that some of the largest and most prosperous States like Maharashtra, Haryana, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Gujarat and Delhi continue to lead the charts in committing female foeticide and infanticide.

In April this year, Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) started a ‘Save the Girl Child’ project in 22 villages of Maharashtra. Data from different surveys and child growth monitoring conducted by WOTR show an alarmingly skewed sex ratio in many parts of the State. Aurangabad and Ahmednagar were particularly identified as two districts with low sex ratio.

An advocate of women’s empowerment and development, WOTR has insisted on gender parity and inclusion of women as decision makers in all its community projects. Since the last six years, WOTR has been running a health programme in 64 villages of Maharashtra, especially focussed on women and child health.

Under this programme, WOTR engages the local community and makes them take ownership to tackle the issue at its roots. Local panchayats and local volunteers play a vital role in spreading awareness as well as implementing the activities in the community. The trust considers male member involvement as crucial to halting discrimination against the girl child and encourages their active involvement in this initiative. It monitors the process in its initial stages and later does dip sticks to monitor the continued implementation of the programme in the villages.

“Initially, there was a lot of resistance from the community. It was very difficult for us to convince the patriarchal order. We organised a gram sabha and explained to them the facts of skewed sex ratio in the village, which finally evoked a positive response from the villagers,” said Bhupali Mhaskar, a member of WOTR.

The trust then decided to give the ownership of the programme to the villagers to bring about behavioural change among them. Towards this end, a community dialogue is held by women panchayat members of the village during which women panchayat members meet with SHGs (Self Help Groups) and SMS (Samyukta Mahila Samiti) leaders. Together they take an account of the extent of the practice of sex selection, impact on women and girls and possible ways to address this discrimination.

Women panchayat members then place the issue before the rest of the panchayat as well as select district officials and the community. As an outcome, a community action plan is developed to take concrete steps at different levels to address the issue. District-level support is factored in, especially in implementing the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act and monitoring of facilities offering ultrasound and imaging services in the area.

Importantly, WOTR assesses the documentation of birth data along with the panchayat. Doctors are asked to ensure accuracy of the data as much as possible. Panchayats are also made to publicly display the last five years’ birth data. Community mobilisation efforts prior to dialogues among the villagers are facilitated by health pravartaks, SHG facilitators and cluster leaders. The SMS’ of the area ensure that SHGs hold discussions on the issue of the girl child during their routine meetings. These community discussions are translated into communication on topics such as the man being biologically responsible for determining the sex of the foetus and not the woman, the perceived necessity of a son and inheritance rights of daughters. Lack of awareness, even amongst women themselves, about the biological process of sex determination, leads to the family blaming the woman for not bearing a son and resorting to remarriage.

The SHGs, along with the panchayats, also work with anganwadis to ensure nutrition and health of girls after birth.

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