The extent of violence against the girl as foetus and infant shows how deep the bias against women is and why they will be secure only if India introspects and changes

Over the next few weeks, there will be many tussles between our mostly male politicians over India’s security. But almost no one will ask if a country can be secure when half its citizens live in deepening insecurity, threatened not by terrorists or enemy soldiers but by the society into which they are born. We seem to forget that India’s security must encompass the security of 48 per cent of its citizens — women — and urgently address the endemic threats they face, ranging from entrenched discrimination to violence.

This starts with the mass murder of female foetuses. In its 2012 report on “Gender Equality and Development,” the World Bank estimated that over the last two decades, around 2.5 lakh girls were killed in India each year because of their sex.

When infant and child mortality are driven by biology, fewer girls die than boys, but the third National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) found that the postneonatal mortality rate for Indian girls is 21/1000, compared with 15 for boys. For the age group 1-4 years, “the child mortality rate for girls, at 23/1000, is 61 per cent higher than for boys, at 14.” The World Bank report estimated that, as a result, India lost another 2.5 lakh girls in 2008.

These figures put us to shame as a society. This systematic massacre could not happen unless society accepted it and governments turned a blind eye to it. Sections 312 to 317 of the Indian Penal Code list the punishments for causing miscarriage, injuring unborn children, preventing a child from being born or causing it to die after birth, and abandoning a child under 12 years. Over the last 20 years, how many prosecutions have there been under these provisions of the law? There should have been 10 million.

Entrenched bias

The extent of the violence against the girl as foetus and infant shows how deep the bias in India is against women and why women will be secure only if we as a nation introspect and change. Not only is this not happening, but the 2011 census shows that the sex ratio in the age-group 0-6 had fallen in 27 States and Union Territories from 2001.

Millions of girls who are allowed to live are fed and educated less than their brothers. The United Nation’s Human Development Report 2013 estimates that 42.5 per cent of our children suffer from malnutrition (as against 3.8 per cent in China). There is also great irony in this because NFHS-3 established that when mothers were undernourished, 54 per cent of their children were stunted and 25 per cent wasted. The more educated they were, the lower the chance of their children being either stunted or wasted. By starving millions of girls so that their brothers can eat marginally better, and by taking them out of school, we have condemned each new generation – boys and girls – to a fresh cycle of malnutrition.

The treatment of little girls moulds the psyche of their brothers, who internalise the view that their needs — as males — have preference over those of their sisters. What we have come to thereby is the socialisation of violence against women.

There are no estimates of the extent of physical violence against the girl child but it would be reasonable to assume that it is extensive.

In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development published a “National Study on Child Abuse,” which reported that 53 per cent of the children interviewed had suffered one or more forms of sexual abuse. It would be dangerous to extrapolate from this limited study that over half our children suffer sexual abuse, but it is clearly far more widespread than we admit. What should be of the gravest concern was that in most cases the children reported that the attack was by someone they knew, often a close relative.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) confirms that this pattern continues as the girl becomes a woman. Since the NCRB can only collate cases registered, its data represent just the tip of the crime iceberg. But it reports that in 2012 there were 24,923 cases of rape registered. In 98 per cent of the cases, the victims knew the offenders. This is a logical outcome of a nurturing process in which boys grow up believing, from what they see in their families, that women exist only to satisfy the needs of men.

Society still resists change. NFHS-3 found that the median age for marriage for girls is still just over 16, and commented that this “is an indicator of the low status of women...it is related to lower empowerment and increased risk of adverse reproductive and health consequences.” There is enough data to show how adverse these are.

Women, particularly poor women, are most insecure in childbirth when they fulfil the role society has set for them. According to the Millennium Development Goals, maternal mortality in India which was 301 per lakh of live births in 2001 should be down to 75 by 2015. This will not happen. We are perhaps down to a maternal mortality rate of 200 now. At 27 million live births in India each year, at least 54,000 women die in the process.

We also perhaps do not realise how other problems have a compounding effect. We are, for instance, the world leaders in open defecation. That is being perpetuated in most States where, despite a requirement that all houses built under the Indira Awas Yojana must have a toilet, very few do. Open defecation is also an open invitation to rape. Complaints to the NHRC show how many women are abducted or raped when they go out into the fields at night. In many States, teenage village girls either refuse to go to school or are taken out by their parents because the building has no toilet and their right to education suffers.

It is sad but to be expected that women have also been indoctrinated to believe that their security depends on good behaviour, as mandated by men. NHFS-3 found that 40 per cent of married women have been subjected to spousal violence. But it also found that 54 per cent of the women it surveyed agreed that wife-beating was acceptable if the wife went out without telling her husband, argued with him, refused sex, neglected the children, did not cook properly, was suspected of being unfaithful or showed disrespect toward her in-laws. On this, NFHS-3 said: “Violence is more likely to be justified if the described behaviour violates what is perceived as acceptable behaviour for women in their gendered roles as wives, mothers and daughters-in-law.”

Obvious acts of violence

And then there are the more obvious acts of criminal violence against women. There is the enormous problem of trafficking; the special insecurities of women in conflict zones. Adivasi and Dalit women are branded as witches. There are the continuing tragedies of forced marriages, of girls being killed for marrying boys of their choice or for not bringing in enough dowry, the needless hysterectomies under the Rashtriya Swasth Bima Yojana.

Within society as between states, security depends on power. The weakest are the most insecure. Women in India are insecure and remain at risk because in this patriarchal society they are children of a lesser god. For women to be secure, the country must change — there should be more women in Parliament and in positions of political and executive authority. Every election brings with it hope of renewal, but India will not be transformed, it cannot be secure, developed or respected if the democracy in which it takes pride does not bring about urgent and fundamental change in the lives of its women.

(Satyabrata Pal was a Member of the National Human Rights Commission.)

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