Where have all the young girls gone?

Where have all the young girls gone?


Where have all the young girls gone?

People of my generation will remember this folk song. It was written and rendered by Pete Seeger in 1955 and sung again with added lyrics by Joan Baez in the 1960s. It was titled ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ Its second stanza runs:

Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the young girls gone?
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

I am the fourth girl child of my family. I am told that at my birth the only one who was happy was my father. But there was no celebration in the household. In Kashmir, where father was posted, the birth of a fourth daughter was considered a sad event.

Father's colleague, a woman who was highly educated, with a B.Ed from London in the 1930s, came home to condole with the family but was politely sent back by him. My mother’s yearning for a male child made her go through several aborted pregnancies. But
I do believe that no matter where it is in the world, a fourth daughter would evoke a similar reaction.

Being four sisters, we did not do too badly in life. I am talking of another era when patriarchy was an unknown concept. Today, the world has changed and the gender discourse is well entrenched in daily life.

Only one fact remains painfully constant: disdain for the girl child. This uncomfortable truth was driven home when the latest figure of India’s Child Sex Ratio (CSR) from the 2011 census was revealed. In fact, the CSR has registered a downward slide since 1961. Over the last decade, it fell from 927 in the 2001 census to the all-time low of 914 in 2011 (a fall of 13 points).

I often wonder at the fact that while many issues electrify the nation and people work themselves into frenzy over them, this one issue has had minimal impact. A World Cup cricket tie between India and Pakistan made the country come to a standstill.

Anna Hazare’s fast-unto-death to fight corruption made many from the middle classes and urban elite, throng to public places to challenge the apathy of the government. But a depleting CSR hardly creates a whimper; newspapers flash the numbers, analyse state-wise data, but no one bothers to start a movement.

The numbers of girl children lost between the ages of one and six, especially in the better performing states and districts, tell a story of gross neglect and criminal indifference. The Capital’s elite South Delhi region, for example, has a dismal sex ratio –  only 762 girls for every 1000 boys. One in every four girls gets aborted here. Among the states, Haryana leads the pack (at 830 girls per 1,000 boys in 2011), Maharashtra is complicit (from 913 in 2001 it has dropped down to 883 in 2011), and Jammu & Kashmir (from 941 in 2001 to 859 in 2011, a fall of 82 points) is right at the bottom.

Meanwhile, there are villages in Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab that have not seen the birth of a girl in a long time. A 2007 study by Indian Trust for Innovation and Social Change, entitled 'Infant Mortality and Maternal Mortality Socio-Economic Causes and Determinants', sponsored by the Planning Commission, describes an incident at the Primary Health Centre (PHC) premises in Daruheda block in Rewari district of Haryana: ‘When the doctor and the midwife went out to wash their hands, in a matter of minutes, the newly born healthy girl child was found dead. The mother of the child after delivery-fatigue was sleeping. No eye witness was there to complain. The case was not pursued. On questioning, the mother-in-law feigned ignorance of what ever happened’.

There are media reports of young (and not so young) men of Haryana who are buying brides from Bihar and Orissa, and the North East. Poor parents in starvation- hit pockets of many states are forced to sell their girls to save them from death. So the girl may land up in Jhajjar or Mewat, an unpaid slave who knows neither the language nor customs of her new marital home. Tragedy unfolds throughout her life, whether she lives in bondage or runs away to a fate that turns out to be no better than what she has left behind. The question of choice is purely hypothetical.

I come from Panipat (in Haryana), which today bears the ignominy of having among the worst CSRs in the country. In this amazing town, which used to be famous for its Sufi culture and has the shrine of Qalandar Sahib, women used to be greatly revered. Houses were named after the ladies of the establishment. Men usually went outside the ‘qasba’ for employment and the women looked after the agricultural lands.

Women and men of Panipat were equally known all over the country for their expertise in Quirrat, or the recitation of the Qur’an. Due to all these factors women were held in great esteem. This is reflected in the poetry of the Poet Laureate, reformist and feminist, Panipat-born Maulana Altaf Husain Hali. His poems extolled the woman, not for her beauty but for her quality to hold up more than half the world. His famous lines, women’s anthem, are:

Ai maon, behnon, beityon duniya ki zeenat tumsay hai,
Mulkon ki basti ho tumhin, qaumom ki izaat tumsay hai .
(O Sisters, mothers, daughters
You are the ornaments of the world
You are the life of the nations
The dignity of civilisations)

Hali wrote this poem over 100 years ago; he died in 1914. How far have we regressed?

We talk about development in all its avatars but what will it be worth if there continues to be over 60 million missing women and girls in India? Think about it; it is time a mass movement to save the girl child was launched with the same universal concern we have seen recently on the issue of corruption. Without women, let’s face it, there is no life. As the poet said:

Ham hi jab na honge to kya rang-e-mehfil? (Without us, life loses all its colour!)

Women’s Feature Service

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