Young people of Uttarakhand are being trained to spread awareness about sex selective abortions and its future impact on villages and society

Despite two decades of mounting concern about the falling sex ratio and various initiatives taken by the State governments, the 2011 Census has revealed that in Uttarakhand, the child sex ratio (0-6 years) had actually plummeted by 20 points to 886 and was lower than that of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh; this despite the State’s high female literacy rate of 70.7 per cent.

Now under the initiative ‘Let Girls be Born (LGBB)’, Plan India and Shri Bhuvneshwari Mahila Ashram (SBMA) — a non-profit body with over 35 years’ grassroots experience — are working closely with the community since 2010 to rectify the child sex ratio.

The sleepy Jeevangarh panchayat in Vikas Nagar block, barely 50 km from State capital Dehradun, is being shaken awake with the auxiliary nursing midwives (ANMs), anganwadi workers (AWWs) and ASHAs working closely to ensure that every pregnancy/birth is registered and followed up to check dubious abortions and neglect of the girl child.

The other important level of intervention is through youth groups who will be reaching out to other young people as well as their own families. Called ‘change makers’, they are trained to speak and script skits or nukkad nataks on issues like dowry, domestic violence, sex selection, impact of falling sex ratio, dimensions of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act and importance of education, particularly for girls. Well-informed and confident, they have been performing nukkad nataks outside schools, colleges, village squares and at village melas. At Vikas Nagar alone, SBMA is working closely with 20 panchayats and as many youth groups.

At a different level, the ANMs, AWW and ASHAs, acting as the panchayat’s eyes and ears, meet every month to exchange notes on pregnancies, births, abortions and deaths and put up a monthly update of these statistics on the village information board. The three health functionaries are members of the Village Health, Sanitation and Nutrition Committee (VHSNC), which gets political muscle when monthly meetings are presided by the Pradhan. While each member of the VHSNC has an important role to play, a lot of the energy comes from the youth groups. Singing, play-acting, often dialoguing with panchayat leaders and their own parents, they play a catalytic role to change the obsolete thinking of the older generation on early marriage, dowry and importance of a male heir. In the process, the youth themselves are metamorphosing and internalising what they advocate.

At the Jeevangarh panchayat, Sunil Verma, Pawan Kumar, Dipender Kumar, Manju Chandel and Puja Rani, all school and college students of 17 to 21 years, demonstrated their newly acquired skills, putting up an impromptu nukkad natak on the sex selection drama enacted in many homes. Parents were compelling their son to get an ultra sound test on his pregnant wife and, if it is a girl, have it aborted. Puja Rani who acts as the young pregnant wife has the courage to refuse the ultra sound test and complains to the police who reprimand the in-laws and husband and threaten them with imprisonment. The skit gives information on the PCPNDT Act, the long-term impact of sex selection and the new role educated girls are playing in society.

The training in two phases of five and three days was determined keeping in mind the needs of the young people to enter the job markets, says Shashi Bhushan Uniyal of SBMA. Sixty youth from 40 panchayats of Vikas Nagar and Haridwar have trained as change makers. All have renewed commitment and understanding of gender issues. Over five months, they learnt to conduct and participate in birth registration camps, reproductive health and other community level activity. The certificates distributed at the block level public function in the presence of parents, teachers and others enhanced their profiles for the job market and ensured their acceptance by the community.

Confident and outspoken, 17-year-old Sunil Verma says, “Earlier, I would listen but could not speak up. Today, I can even speak to the Pradhan.” For Dipender Kumar, 19, the collective strength of the group was inspiring. He realised that girls were equal to boys in every sphere. College principals are already calling some of the change makers to perform/train others in nukkad nataks.

An indication of the community’s seriousness to change the sex ratio and give girls their rights are the charts found in every panchayat of Vikas Nagar and Haridwar listing the demographic parameters of the village — the size of the population, the number of pregnancies, girls and boys born, abortions, still births, etc.

At Jeevangarh, the maternity tracking system showed that of the 405 pregnant women, 234 had delivered — 110 in a government hospital, 66 in a private facility, 57 at home and one in the mobile transport unit. While 117 were boys, 111 were girls. There were four male stillbirths and two of females. The 10 abortions registered in the whole year seemed on the lower side leading to discussion and investigation that others may have visited private doctors to escape detection. Though health functionaries seek early registration of pregnancy, very often it is only after three and a half months when the woman goes for her tetanus shot that the pregnancy is registered.

The State supervisory board for CSR (child sex ratio) has found the information boards so useful that it wants them in all panchayats in all the 13 districts. Even the project implementation plan of NRHM for 2013-2014 has endorsed them.

The impact of the interventions is already visible in the child sex ratio of Uttarkhand. In February 2013, the Mother & Child Tracking system of the State government reflects a CSR of 920 at birth with 4386 boys and 4052 girls child in Dehradun district. In Vikas Nagar block the data collected by the District Asha Resource Centre shows CSR 904 with birth of 1190 boys and 1003 girls.