The birth of a daughter should have been one of the happiest days of life. Instead, she lay on the bed of her home the newborn child on the floor, screaming in terror as her mother-in-law poured paraffin over her. She had failed again to deliver a son and it would be better for everyone if she were dead. Suddenly the door burst open and her neighbours rushed in, roused by the frantic screaming. They bundled her and her daughter out of the house, never to return.
As soon as children are born, society identifies them as either “she” or “he.” Parents select gender distinct clothes, blankets, and even toys.
Gender seems to be one of the most dominant variables that influence human development from conception to death, particularly in Indian society. Apart from class, race, age, religion, and ethnicity, gender is another vital dimension of social stratification, putting the female at a level of disadvantage; though the scenario is changing at least in urban habitat. The Government of India has taken several legislative measures relating to issues from female foeticide, the practice of child marriage, widow re-marriage to women’s right to property etc., which have impacted the Indian family system and society in many ways. The twenty-first century witnessed huge changes in the Indian way of life under the influence of modernization, westernization, industrialization, technical advancement, and population mobility across the globe. However, the moment a baby is born the first thing that comes to mind is “boy or girl?” and the issue is beyond just the biological one.
In spite of India’s reputation for respecting women, to an extent to treating woman as a goddess, history tells us that women were ill-treated or neglected in various spheres of life across religions, regions, and communities. Women are seen as nurturers and the providers of emotional caretaking, while men are considered providers of economic support. Girls inherit their mother’s domestic chores and adopt stereotypical gender roles. Low self-esteem and self-worth are common. After marriage, her husband and in-laws control her life. Consequently, the girls enter a state of silence.
As the girl starts growing, she gradually gets exposed to a set of rules, defining appropriate feminine behaviour in a given culture, which is known as “gender norm.” She likes playing with dolls rather than trucks and starts mimicking the role of a mother. Up to this stage, a girl’s understanding of gender is still limited and based on very concrete rules like girls having long hair or wearing frocks/skirts.
In India, school systems are ambivalent about imparting sex education. Even in some schools where sexual and reproductive health education exists in the curriculum, teachers are often too embarrassed and uncomfortable to effectively instruct. Most adolescent girls have little knowledge of menstruation, sexuality, and reproduction. Large numbers of rural and urban populations believe that menstruation contaminates the body and makes it unholy. In certain cultures, girls are isolated in a separate room for 3 days and are untouchable during this period. As a consequence, the girl often sees herself as impure, unclean, and dirty.
Even the restrictions get increased day by day on clothes, appearance, conduct, speech, and interaction with the opposite sex. Early marriage of girls has received religious and social sanctions. Despite the laws increasing the legal age of marriage to 18 for girls, there are strong cultural pressures on parents to marry daughters early. Investing in girls’ education is perceived as a waste of resources since families believe that a girl’s education will only benefit her husband’s household and not the family of origin. Even if we talk about this twentieth-century where the girls are independent the family always compelled her to marry.
Violence within the home is universal across culture, religion, class, and ethnicity. Girls face violence at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles in their homes. The abuse is generally overlooked by social custom and considered a part and parcel of marital life. It may also include rape and sexual abuse. Psychological violence includes verbal abuse, harassment, confinement, and deprivation of physical, financial, and personal resources. They are often caught in a vicious circle of economic dependence, fear for their children’s lives as well as their own, ignorance of their legal rights, lack of confidence in themselves, and social pressures. The sanctity of privacy within the family also makes authorities reluctant to intervene, often leading women to deny that they are being abused. Domestic violence has devastating repercussions on the family. Abuse and violence against girls in society may contribute to the development of dysfunctional behaviour, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, somatization disorders, etc. Discrimination and neglect can result in lowered self-expectations, negative attitude toward self, lack of initiatives, and so on.
But my question is what if my parents didn’t have a son or couldn’t support themselves? What happens to the millions of parents, who have only one daughter, or who have only female kids? Who is supposed to support them? I believe if a girl wants to take care of her parents, she needs to find acceptance for that in her spouse’s family…the husband, the in-laws, they all need to agree for her to support her parents financially. Moreover, her own parents should be agreed to accept her support rather than to live in superstitious kinds of stuff.
“The hand that rocks the cradle, the procreator, the mother of tomorrow; a woman shapes the destiny of civilization…the little girl of today.”
Equality, to me, is based on equal treatment and respect towards one another, to have the same rights. Instead of fighting, we should be pulling together, and make this journey a joint endeavour. We are of equal value if only we open our eyes, at the heart of change is where we become most wise.
~Adv Ankita Wadhwa