What glass ceiling?

What glass ceiling?

Pro-women programmes may be striving hard to make women’s equality a reality. But in a nation that thrives on patriarchal stereotypes, is it possible for women to experience real empowerment, wonders Vimla Patil.

Last year, Narendra Modi, the charismatic Prime Minister of India and Amitabh Bachchan, the superstar whose popularity all over the world remains unequalled, both spoke up strongly for the millions of girls who are born in India every year, only to be given a life of illness, possible death from neglect, darkness in life without education and social status.

According to the 2011 census of India, there are 927 women for every 1000 men and this is truly shocking for social monitoring agencies. Though this figure speaks for the whole of India, there are certain states like Punjab and Haryana where the number of girls is even less. Even now, though the sex determination test during pregnancy is banned by law, there are medical practitioners and clinics that pursue such practices. Further, in poor families, the girl child is burdened with housework, tending to siblings, helping in the kitchen and so on. Very often, these duties eat into her study or work time.

Such demanding lifestyle hampers the healthy growth of girl children. They are not given enough or healthy food and suffer from malnutrition at a young age. Their freedom is limited because of the fear that they will be molested or raped by men on the prowl. “We read or hear about these crimes every day. They are on the rise because girls are considered to be easy targets. Even after suffering molestation or rape, girl children or their families are unwilling to reveal the truth in fear of the dreadful social stigma, which seems to affect women more than men,” says Malti Roy, a lawyer who has handled many rape cases.

All the same“Discrimination against the girl child is not limited to the poor strata of society,” says Saroj Mishra, who has worked in the area of healthcare for children. “Even in the middle and higher classes of Indian society, there are social practices which deprive women of their legal rights, even though they are passed as laws in our country. For instance, if families can afford higher education for one child, they would prefer to educate a son as he is seen as the ‘breadwinner’ in the family. Such discrimination is not limited to our
country. It is a worldwide phenomenon and girl children are made to feel ‘inferior’ to boys from birth and given less of every resource of life,” she says.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen is of the opinion that there are two main areas of a girl’s life that needs to be worked upon - education and health. Education, health and awareness of one’s rights wipe out all differences based on caste, religion and social status. He also believes that these factors negate the traditional attitude that a male child is a ‘blessing’ and a girl child a ‘liability’. But educational opportunities are denied to girls when there is a financial crunch in the family or when marriage takes precedence over education. Indian parents consider it their ‘sacred duty’ to marry off their daughter.

Though the law grants equal status to women in India, the discrimination against them, and the attitude that men are ‘entitled’ to servitude of women and preferred inheritors of the family’s assets, casts a dark shadow on women’s empowerment. Even today, though the law gives women equal rights to ancestral property and their own earnings and assets, there are innumerable cases where these are taken away or not given to women by
families who control her rights. Even by India’s ancient culture, people in this sub-continent should remember that our deities of power, lustre, wealth, knowledge and wisdom are all women.

But there seems to be some kind of improvement in the situation. “It has to be acknowledged that there has been a marked improvement in the life and rights of the girl child,” says Sumitra Chandran, who heads an NGO for girl children. “More girls are in schools in urban India and more number of women are working and earning money. The abortion of
female fetuses has decreased because of the stringent vigilance of governmental agencies and though the progress is slow in our massive population, some positive changes are visible.”

United Nations has initiated the =‘International Day of the Girl Child’ to be celebrated on October 11. This idea was originally founded as a project of Plan International, an NGO that operates worldwide. The first Girl Child Day was celebrated in 2012. Every year, there are themes like ending child marriage, innovating for girls’ education and so on, which embody the determination of all nations to empower girls and give them every opportunity to be self-reliant. With special days like these, the need is to take stronger steps to make education, health and empowerment a reality for our girls. Only when these three ‘rights’ are given to her, will her equality in society become a reality in the true sense.

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