“The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl.”” – Shirley Chisholm
Have you ever wondered what the world would be without women?
At the first glance, this question and Shirley’s statement might not sound powerful enough to astound you. But even if it succeeds in touching the tiniest percentage of your conscience, well, it will recede in a while! The fact that girls are being killed prematurely and women are bought and sold are harsh realities of the society with which everyone is acquainted, but the big question is how many of us are really interested in even pondering over such issues?
At a time when the media is promoting several Bollywood blockbusters, the stock markets are booming, new technologically superior gadgets are making their way into our so-called “jet age” and Indians are ecstatic about having the richest man of the world in their midst, there are million impoverished and vulnerable women who are awaiting with anguish their doomsday. A sensitive issue like this should cancel out the euphoria but it hardly seems to be making a dent. This cause is so deeply espoused with anger and sorrow that our patriarchal society might not even want to hear about it. The deep set prejudices, perceptions and the complex reasons for preferring sons to girls are vividly expressed even in advertisements where little girls have to be pretty. Seldom will you find a dark or a plump girl in any advertisement. Ironically, such criterions do not hold true for boys. Our homogenized world is so immune to oppression and subjugation that the gradual and systematic decimation of girls in our feudal, son-worshipping society does not seem to raise an alarm.
Our past foretells the future. Remember the ancient epic Mahabharata which depicts the life of Draupadi who was married to five brothers? Such marriages are rampant even today; the only exception being that girls do not have the choice of a ‘swayamvar’ in a sex-starved patriarchy having a dearth of brides. Is it not horrifying to know that a girl child is killed after birth, if she was not finished off in the womb itself? The high dowry demands during marriage of the girl child are one of the most important reasons of female feticide. With the alarming rate at which our society is exterminating small girls, it often makes me wonder whether this practice would actually enhance the value of women and girl children. In the late 1980s, when the first indications of a technology that was being used to ensure that girls were not born came to be known, a few people predicted that the women would face much greater violence and would be trafficked. As the number of women would reduce, they would be in greater demand and instead of paying dowry; they would demand a higher price for marriage. But something very different is happening now. In the states, where sex selection is most rampant, there are entire villages where the men cannot find women to marry. So they are “buying” women from other states. In some instances, where the family can afford to buy just one woman, she is expected to serve all the men in the family thereby giving birth to polyandry. This is rampant in villages of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar.West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand where women capable of doing all household errands are sold as wives, at meager rates. They can bear only boys as the birth of a girl would give way to several other worries and girls, being unwelcome, are unsafe in their own homeland.
Now let us come down to hard core facts; the 2001 census exposed the Indian reality of falling sex ratios in the 0-6 year’s age group. The national average stood at 927 girls to 1,000 boys. However, the laws to check sex-selective abortions, to encourage parents with girls and implementation of other such policies as addressing societal female devaluation have not made much difference. The Third National Family Health Survey revealed that, five years later, the sex ratio in this age group has fallen to 918. Other reports show that female infanticides each year in districts of Bihar could be around 1,632,000. In 1981, there was little evidence regarding the practice of sex-selective abortion in India but 1991, census shows a contrast to the former report as it indicates substantial prenatal sex selection in urban and rural Northwest states, urban parts of some Central and Western states, and down South. Despite overall mortality decline, child mortality was greatest among girls than boys during 1981 – 1991. These evidences force us to question a few things; the time when the bias against girl children starts, how rampantly the prenatal sex selection has spread in India in comparison to the other parts of Asia and whether female versus male child mortality risks have changed. The answer to this is the selective neglect of the girls and female infanticide.
In India, preference for a male child appears to be undiminished by socio-economic development. That a son is a support at old age and also the customs, in which the last rites of the parents are performed by the son, only go on to show how desirable a male child is. The reports of various NGOs mention that the increase in birth of the male child together with persistent excess female child mortality and female infanticide creates a `double jeopardy’ for girl children. The other surprising reality is that previously only upper castes as Rajputs and Brahmins practiced female infanticide but now the custom has spread to all other groups in the rural spectrum, including scheduled castes, tribes Muslims and Christians. On studying the psychology of the people belonging to relatively lower castes, one finds that they believe in emulating upper caste social customs to move into upper caste economic networks furthering upward class mobility. The net result is that women are caught in a vicious cycle. Gender bias, spread of dowry with exorbitant demands, marginalization of women from traditional occupations, concentration of income in the hands of men leading to the seclusion of women, increasing dependence on men. Lastly, the crumbling down of women under men who in order to emulate upper caste customs assert their right on female infanticide, bring us back to the social evil of gender bias. This vicious cycle in which women are caught takes the shape of a spectrum which supports the arguments made about social devaluation of women, their economic marginalization with demographic disadvantage, and other such deep prejudices against women which refuse to go away.
The film Matrubhoomi is a vivid and powerful depiction of the systematic decimation of girls in a patriarchal society. It warns us about the approaching culture stained by the moral collapse and sexual depravity. How a fresh young woman, Kaalki, so miraculously preserved behind high walls by her impoverished but tender father, battles with a horrid fate in a world of sick voyeurs, forced to play the role of a modern-day Draupadi to satisfy their lust, is the theme of the movie. The opening sequence, where a newborn female infant is ritually fed milk and then drowned in a pitcher of milk, after an invocation to the unseen deity for better fortune next time leaves the audience dumbstruck. Also, Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen which uses abusive, scatological and brutal language, accompanied with a horrid rape scene clearly depicts the chattel-like treatment of women in our patriarchal society. It also, in a way, seems to support the notion that a man endures pain as an undeserved punishment, while a woman should accept it as if it were a natural heritage.
This discussion can go on and on. Therefore, it’s high time we took up this cause as a social emergency and tackled it on all fronts. It should be given a high priority not only by the government but by the nation as a whole. Instead of enforcing laws, we have to combat with the more intangible problems of deep rooted prejudice and perceptions. I do not understand how the society mechanism works. Haven’t we been taught in our school days that prosperity brings happiness and roots out the evil? Here the evil being gender biased society, caste and communal divisions. Yet we witness that most prosperous districts have the lowest sex ratios. This is because as prosperity enhances, it only provides the resources to act upon the inherent prejudices, thereby deepening them. The advertisements that I had mentioned earlier are just subtle, imperceptible and well accepted normative messages, which probably, with every repeated telecast and minor changes in their form only go forth to re-enforce the existing prejudices. In order to provide the entertainment value to advertisements, their sarcastic humour on the existing social evils (not just women-centered but of all kinds) fail to evoke a sense of seriousness towards the entire issue. This makes the audience laid back and oblivious to these issues that require time and a serious approach. Thus, it is important that the ad-makers, and all those associated with communicating to the masses, make a deliberate attempt in altering the existing perceptions instead of popularizing them.
Lastly, only to give the readers a reminder to take the cause of women more seriously, I would like to question if women should really be subjected to such a kind of living, more so, those who have no voice. The scenario seems to be improving with the upcoming women development cells and bodies which work for women empowerment and education. Also, the whole new concept of feminism seems to bring a ray of hope. Education and employment of women are extremely essential. We have to do much more for womankind. They are, after all, women- our mothers- our creators!