Amidst age-old prejudice against the girl child and worrisome sex ratio figures, a festival was organised to celebrate the arrival of baby girls and spread awareness

Who celebrates the birth of a girl child? In India, where all blessings traditionally begin with Doodho nahao, pooton phalon (May you be blessed with sons), it is no surprise that the birth of a girl child is not really seen as an occasion to rejoice. Right from sounding the kansi ki thali to the Suraj poojan to a feast and the jamna (gifts for the newborn sent by maternal parents), all the rituals have been traditionally custom-designed to welcome the birth of boys in the family.

More so in a State like Rajasthan where some of its western districts have an infamous ritual of breaking mud pots when daughters are born. These girls grow up in an environment of discrimination, without proper health care or education. And since this prejudice is part of the social norms and cultural practices, it is easily transferred from one generation to the other, perpetuating a lifetime of injustice.

There are even tales of Bhati Rajput families drowning the newborn girls in water mixed with milk or killing them with an overdose of opium. In 2010, when Panna Singh's daughter, Shagun Kanwar, got married, the otherwise normal ritual of the arrival of a baarat in their Deora village, situated on the Barmer-Jaislamer border, created headlines. It was only the second time in 12 years that the family had welcomed a baarat. In such a hostile terrain, however, the arrival of baby girls did not remain an unsung event this year. The occasion was Kanya Dhoond Mahotsava, organised by the Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Cell, a State department set-up to execute the provisions of the PCPNDT ACT, in association with the Health Department and the Barmer district administration.

In Rajasthan, traditionally Dhoond (local name for a demonic figure from whom the child is protected by worshipping the Holi fire) is an event to mark the arrival of a baby boy. But in a departure from the local custom, around 150 mothers attended the colourful Kanya Dhoond Mahotsava at Barmer's Zilla Swasthya Bhawan along with their newborn daughters in March this year. As the festive folk melodies wafted through the air, it was a moment of joy and pride for these women when their girls were garlanded and gifted toys and new clothes.

Dr. Azmal Hussain, Chief Medical and Health Officer (CMHO), Barmer, said: “The main objective of organising such a festivity was to stop discrimination against the girl child and help improve the declining sex ratio of our district.”

To drive home the need to balance gender disparity in society, posters with messages like ‘If the sex ratio continues to decline by the present rate, where would you get brides?', ‘Fifty years on there will be just one girl to seven boys' and ‘Save the Girl Child and Stop Sex Selection' were put up at the function venue, even as District Collector Dr. Veena Pradhan argued that if girls were given the opportunities, they would achieve as much or even more than boys. “Main bhi beti hoon aur aaj Collector hoon (even I am a daughter and today I have become Collector),” she told the audience.

Before organising the Kanya Dhoond Mahotsava, the PCPNDT Cell made extensive preparations. “We publicised the event in local dailies and involved anganwadi and health workers to identify baby girls less than one-year-old this Holi and invited them to attend the mahotsava,” Mr. Champawat said.

While PCPNDT Cell did not have enough resources to promote and pull off such a large-scale event on its own, British exploration company Cairn India lent support that ensured that each baby was gifted new clothes and toys. “I think with collective effort the event turned out to be an effective way to convey the provisions of the PCPNDT Act. The maiden initiative was also well applauded at the coordinators' all-Rajasthan meeting in Jaipur,” Mr. Champawat added.While the Dhoond celebration may be a symbolic gesture on part of the government, it is a positive beginning nonetheless. Simple hard facts on the missing girls in the region cannot be ignored any longer. As per the latest statistics, Barmer has a worrisome sex ratio of 899 females per 1000 males. It is also one of the country's 250 most backward districts (out of a total of 640) and has to do a lot on the literacy front as well — the average literacy rate currently is 57.49 per cent compared to 58.99 per cent in 2001. The female literacy figures have seen a sharper decline — it has come down from 43.45 per cent to a miserable 41.03 per cent, according to the latest Census.

The Barmer situation mirrors that of the rest of the State. At 883 females per 1000 males, Rajasthan is among those States with lowest child sex ratio in India, well below the national average of 914. The overall sex ratio at 926 is no heartening news at all as it is below the national average figure of 940 per 1000 males.(WFS)

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