The Rights of the Girl Child in India
(Theory and Practices)
By Krupasindhu Nayak
The Constitution of India offers all citizens, including children, certain basic Fundamental Rights "" the right to life and liberty, the right to equality, right to freedom of speech and expression, right against exploitation, right to freedom of religion, right to conserve culture and the right to constitutional remedies for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights. Further, the Directive Principles of State Policy directs the State to ensure that all children are provided with services and opportunities to grow and develop in a safe and secure environment.
To realize the letter and spirit of the Constitution, the State has formulated a number of legislations such as the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulations Act) and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 In addition, a number of policies and plans (National Policy for Children 1974, National Policy on Education, National Policy on Child Labour, National Charter for Children 2004 and National Plan of Action for Children, 2005) have been formulated. The Government is also implementing a large number of programmes and schemes for the benefit of children.
India is a signatory to a number of International Instruments such as UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, with its two Optional Protocols, and Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), thereby affirming its commitment to the growth and development of women and children. It also accepted without reservation the international commitments of the "˜World fit for Children' adopted by the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children in 2002, and the Beijing Platform for Action for the advancement of women and girls adopted by the World Conference on Women in 1995.
However, inadequate impact of programming investment and achievement in overall development of the child, and the adverse influence of negative social attitudes towards women and girls have left girl children in India disadvantaged. Their survival, development, security and well-being as citizens of India, and their participation as members of society are thus officially recognized as a matter of serious national concern.
Who are the girl children?
In order to design any policy, the first step is to clarify our framework. I propose to define girl children as a socially constructed category around female person's between 0 and 18 years. Childhood is built on the cross road with other identities we have as individuals. Ethnicity, class, nationality, family environment, sexual orientation, occupation, and other features, such as if they live in a violent environment, if they are deprived of freedom, if they are disabled persons, if they are from western or eastern hemisphere; these are identities whose interconnection will place these girls in a situation with more or less access to their human rights. Hence, public policy should take these differences into consideration since these policies will affect unequally girls who are in different situations. Despite all these differences, in common all girls have to be under an adult's supervision. For this reason our analysis should be thought of from the intergenerational perspective. Furthermore, it is necessary to think of girls as the subjects of rights and not only as an object of protection. They could be in vulnerable situations but the approach must be necessarily be made from that of respect for a human being and not from the victim perspective.
Rights of the Girl Child
All forms of discrimination against the girl child and violation of her rights shall be eliminated by undertaking strong measures both preventive and punitive within and outside the family. These would relate specifically to strict enforcement of laws against prenatal sex selection and the practices of female foeticide, female infanticide, child marriage, child abuse and child prostitution etc. Removal of discrimination in the treatment of the girl child within the family and outside and projection of a positive image of the girl child will be actively fostered. There will be special emphasis on the needs of the girl child and earmarking of substantial investments in the areas relating to food and nutrition, health and education, and in vocational education. In implementing programmes for eliminating child labour, there will be a special focus on girl children.
Violence or the threat of violence permeates the lives of all girls and young women. The specific vulnerabilities of girls, however, did not gain prominent attention until the 1980s when UNICEF adopted the phrase, "the girl child". In recognition of the oppression of girls as a gendered concern, international organizations followed suit, proclaiming 1990 "The Year of The Girl Child", and the 1990s as "The Decade of the Girl Child". At the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the plight of girl children was highlighted as a significant issue of concern.
Girl children are undesirable in many regions of the world. In fact, due to the high occurrence of foeticides, infanticides', including newborn neglect and abandonment, the world is currently deprived of over 100 million women. China and India alone are responsible for 80 million missing females. The first warning against this scourge was voiced in 1990 by Amartya Sen "" an Indian 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economy "" though since that time the situation has worsened. Economic modernization has exacerbated the phenomenon. Wealth and economic development do not reduce son preference according to Rohini Pande and Anju Malhotra . Isabelle AttanÃ© further states that the economic and social liberalization of China has strengthened the traditional social power structure which is detrimental to women. The use of medical technology for sex selection and abortion has become a lucrative business. Finally, the girl deficit is more common among educated women and wealthier families.
Female foeticide, the practice of sex-selective abortions, has taken over infanticide, the practice of killing children at birth. Female foeticide is now practiced in different parts of the world but is most prevalent in Southern Asia. This section of the report will consider the magnitude of the problem, the root causes and the consequences of all "missing girls". Finally, we will look at means of enforcing national laws and changing mentalities in order to reassess girls' most basic human right "" the right to life.
It should also be mentioned that it was the women's movement, both in India and in the sub-continent, networking and communicating over decades, often enabled by the spaces offered by the U.N. agencies, which came together to suggest to the first conference of the SAARC Region, namely the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, that one of their themes should be the girl child.
Secondly, over the decades, India has had many programs addressed specifically to the girl child, almost doing what is called positive discrimination in her favour. In the last decade, there have been programmes in the different States of India, which for example, would open a bank account for the girl child of a poor family and not a boy child. Forms of encouraging parents to cherish the girl child, even if the incentive was as crude as a monetary incentive.
India (Cultural Factors)
India has an age old fascination with the boy child. The culture in India is profoundly patriarchal and is a feudal society where women are neither seen nor heard. There is societal pressure for women to have male children and as a result women are often considered failures and tend to feel guilty after giving birth to a girl. Women who are considered to have less value because they did not give their husbands a son are at risk of being beaten and rejected by their husbands. Giving birth to a girl can lead to rejection by in-laws and by the community as a whole. "If you don't kill your girl, you are rejected by the community and/or by your in-laws"acccording to Manjeet Rathee, an English teacher .
In the Hindu religion, the son is responsible for lighting his parents' pyre, in order for them to reach Nirvana, and having only girls in the family amounts to being condemned to a lower caste in the next world. In Punjab "" where the illiteracy rate is close to 70 percent "" there are places of worship called "Son temples," exclusively for people who want a male child.
The superstitions are various and some are very detrimental to girls. For example, "˜Blessings and curses' of Eunuchs, who travel from village to village to curse mothers who have girls while blessing those with baby boys. Another superstition is that if the first child is a girl and that girl is killed, the next child will be a boy.
Female infanticide has been practiced in India for thousands of years, but with the increased availability of modern sex determination techniques such as amniocentesis, ultrasound and trans-vaginal probes, sex-selective abortion has become common in most of India's big cities. In 1990, there were 25 million more males than females in India and by 2001 the gender gap had risen to 35 million. Experts now estimate that it may reach 50 million.
Each year the number of girls who die is higher than boys. This is an unnatural phenomenon caused, in part, by girl infanticide. A 2001 National Family Health survey in India showed that post neonatal mortality is 13 percent higher for females than for males. Child mortality figures were 43 percent higher for females than for males. Yet, the scientific facts show that genetically girls are considered stronger and more resilient than boys at the time of birth. The abnormal mortality rates, therefore, have to be affected by the tragic reality of girl infanticide, including neglect and abandonment.
Many girls who are granted the right to be born are then denied the right to basic life sustaining nutrition and health and are instead neglected by their families and communities. The resulting ill health of the child often leads to death.
Studies have shown that neglect and abandonment during the first few years of life leave a lasting mark on a child's life, and can often result in the death of the child .Girl children, in particular, are often victims of deadly neglect and abandonment due to culture, tradition, religious beliefs and social attitudes that continue to make girls vulnerable in the family and the community. In many countries, the girl child endures a low social status that results in fewer rights and benefits than the boy child. In those countries, the issue of adequate food and basic living conditions necessary for the survival of the girl child is of little concern to the members of the communities. These social customs tend to give preference to boys.
Social and Economic Factors:
Among the factors which lead to a consideration of females as less valuable, the following are of special importance:
ï¶ Inheritance: In many regions of rural India there is a strict social taboo on a daughter inheriting land, since if she does so the land is lost by her father's lineage. If a woman attempted to exercise her legal claim to her share of her parents'immovable property, she would be likely to lose the affection of her brothers together with their sense of obligation to support her in a family emergency or in the event she is widowed without sons. The recent Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 which deleted the gender discriminatory clause on agricultural land only benefits Hindu women leaving intact the obstacle faced by non-Hindu women.
ï¶ Furthermore women in many rural areas are economically reliant on men who are traditionally the breadwinners, custom which in turn impacts the imbalance in the employment sector.
ï¶ Having a boy allows the father to achieve better status in society, whereas having a baby girl is seen as a curse.
ï¶ Not only has the girl child been traditionally considered inferior to boys (she only does domestic chores) but also as a liability "" a bride's dowry can financially cripple a poor family. Moreover, the dowry practice can deteriorate into a method of extorsion of wealth from the bride's to the groom's parents, leaving many daughters' parents in debt
ï¶ -"Raising a daughter is like watering someone else's field": deep-rooted saying among rural people in India where elderly peasants traditionally can only depend on their sons.
ï¶ Nevertheless, in the richest states like Haryana (India), sex-selective abortions are very common and also apply to well-educated women, for whom the girls' deficit is even twice as high as for illiterate women. So, illiteracy and poverty are not the only factors, though we know that much can be achieved through education and improved living conditions. There is evidence that although the dowry was banned in India in 1961, and the caste tradition has been abolished, all these customs are deeply rooted in society and still prevail. In some other areas of Asia, humiliation and even death are often the punishments for a mother who gives birth to a girl, because of the economic hardship and social stigma caused by a female child.
Over the next 20 years, in parts of China and India there will be a 12 to 15 percent excess of young men leading to an obvious bride shortage: between 2015 and 2030 there will be 25 million men in China who have no hope of finding a wife .
This can give rise to:
ïƒ¼ A substantial increase in aggressions and organized crime
ïƒ¼ Rape and other forms of violence against women
ïƒ¼ Drug and alcohol abuse
ïƒ¼ Situation where all men of the family share the same wife.
ïƒ¼ Women being viewed as commodities: for example kidnapping and trafficking of girls across borders.
ïƒ¼ Inter-community trafficking, which is something relatively new, such as the "Paros" (women from the outside) phenomenon: women are easily bought just like commodities with a price range between 50 and 900 dollars; the younger the girl, the higher the price. According to UNIFEM, 45,000 "Paros" have been sold in and around Haryana (India) in 2006 alone
UNICEF has warned that "the alarming decline in the child sex-ratio is likely to result in more girls being married at a younger age, more girls dropping out of education, increased mortality as a result of early child bearing and an associate increase in acts of violence against girls and women such as rape, abduction, trafficking and forced polyandry".
The ultimate challenge we must address concerns how we can eliminate the gap between the ideal of gender equality in our society and the reality that the potential for girls to fulfill their economic, social, political, and cultural potential is constrained by the unequal treatment they encounter daily in the form of gendered violence.
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2. Appeal, Guyana. (1996). The work of the committee on the elimination of discrimination against women: Its focus on nationality, custom, culture and the rights of the girl child. Paper from Advancing the Human Rights of Women; Using International Human Rights Standards in Domestic Litigation: Asia/South
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8. Unpublished manuscript. Declaration and Agenda for Action, World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children. Stockholm. 28 August, 1996.
9. United Nations. (1995) Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action Available at: http://www. un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/declar.htm.
Assist. Professor, KISS(KIIT University)
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