The much publicised case of Baby Afreen's tragic death in a Bangalore hospital will perhaps go down among the most brutal instances of the prevalent prejudice in India against the girl-child. In March, two-year-old Falak met with an equally tragic end in Delhi after she was trafficked and cruelly tortured for months. There is much in common between these two unrelated and widely publicised tales of violence and abandonment and the many hundreds that go unreported. In India, gender discrimination and violence against children and women defy caste and class barriers and urban and rural divides. The effects of these and other gender disparities are writ large on India's human development indicators. Look at the child sex ratio in the 0-6 years age group two decades after the inauguration of India's economic reforms: In 2011, the figure stood at 914 females for every 1000 males, down from 945 in 1991. Years ago, demographers established that technologies that determine the sex of the foetus could be the root cause of the rapid decline in the population of female children. But the law banning this manifestly blatant abuse of modern technology is observed in its breach, thanks to collusion among pliable medical professionals and the bureaucracy.

Policymakers too must take their share of the blame, insofar as they remain impervious to the implications of the two-child family norm in a society where the preference for sons is predominant. At least one state law seeks to disqualify elected representatives of local bodies if they have more than two children. Proponents of such punitive measures miss the following common sense point. Fertility decisions are influenced by the survival chances of children, which are linked to the economic security of families. Hence, it would be highly arbitrary to include family size as an eligibility criterion for public office. Sadly, the courts have upheld these sorts of laws, arguing that population growth has an adverse impact on the country's development and elected representatives should lead by example. Mercifully, the enthusiasm for such indiscriminate incentives and disincentives has waned, possibly because there was talk of extending its application to members of State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha. But combating socially engendered discrimination against women and children calls for creating equal opportunities in education and employment and promoting equity and justice, besides enforcing the law on matters like foeticide and dowry. Only thus could traditional stereotypes be broken and the changing roles of women accorded respect and recognition.

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