It has been widely reported in the Indian media this week that the 2011 census has shown a national drop in child sex ratio. The 2001 census places girl:boy ratio in India at 927:1000; 2011 results show a significant drop to 914:1000. These statistics are shocking and disappointing given that several initiatives have been established across the country including the criminalisation of foetal sex determining and widespread campaigns to improve the rights of girls and women in India.
The reasons for the gender disparity are complex: cultural traditions, economic burden, social status and concerns about dowry payments are all factors that contribute to the high incidence of female infanticide and sex selective abortion, which, despite being criminalised is now a lucrative online business. A clinic in Haryana was recently reported as having a sign advertising foetal sex testing which stated, ‘Pay 50 rupees now save 50,000 rupees dowry later’. This clearly demonstrates that girls and women are still considered a financial burden on society and that their lives simply aren’t worth investing in.
The issue is multi-faceted but the simple fact remains: women continue to be treated with less respect than men in Indian society, beginning almost from conception and continuing into adulthood. The census figures come, somewhat ironically, just a month after International Womens Day (8th March 2011) celebrating the economic, social and political achievements of women past, present and future and speaking out against the continual subjection of women the world over to domestic abuse, unequal rights in the workplace and exclusion from education and access to healthcare.
Sambhavna places strong emphasis on the rights of women (left: staff at Sambhavna discussing community health). Some of the biggest activists in the Bhopal campaign are local women who have initiated NGOs, formed activism groups and played an enormous part in the mobilisation of the community. Women have the right to voice their opinions, express their ideas and show their faces within the walls of Sambhavna, and indeed within the local communities. Many of the community health initiatives are driven forward by women and in Bhopal bastis, the matriarchal household is alive and kicking. Just a few days ago at the Board of Trustees meeting here at Sambhavna the two sanitary workers, Jameela Bi and Chandrakanta, presented their work on natural cleaning products and mosquito coils to eminent scientists on the board. The confidence and poise that these two women held as they explained their work with pride and enthusiasm, stands in the face of the often depressing statistics about women’s rights and demonstrates that things can be different.
Sambhavna are keen to encourage the participation of women in society and to educate the wider community about women’s rights. In celebration of International Women’s Day some of the staff produced, directed and performed a play (left) to raise awareness about the exploitation of women and the ensuing violence that is often endured. Chandrakanta, Massarrat, Radha, Mukesh, Aziza, Asha, Pallavi, Om and Nitesh were the stars of the show, as they shed light on issues such as child marriage, gender selective abortion, and the unfair preferential treatment of boys in many aspects of life including nutrition, education and the right to life in the first instance. The play was performed in a local college, a park and at Sambhavna, and all who watched it appeared to not only enjoy the performance, the issues raised resonating strongly. People participated in discussion, got wholeheartedly involved in the storyline and seemed to really appreciate the show.
There is only one way forward if gender equality is to be reached in India. No amount of changes in law, financial incentive or criminalisation can teach people to respect women, or indeed teach women to respect themselves. Change must begin from a grassroots level up, people’s perceptions of girls and women must be challenged, their talents, skills and ability to contribute meaningfully in every avenue of society recognised. Women must learn to protect their rights, and men must learn to respect them. Sambhavna is pushing that change forward, showing once again the benefits of community-based interaction and of teaching people to raise their voices and speak out against injustice in whatever capacity it exists.