Prioritising the girl child

Being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), India already affirmed its commitment to the growth and development of women and children. Article 19 refers to the state’s obligation to protect children from all forms physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation including sexual abuse perpetrated by parents or others responsible for their care. Article 34 enjoins the state parties to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse.

The trouble is, a clutch of legal provisions and constitutional safeguards notwithstanding, the plight of women and children India is not at all hunky dory. The draft Protection of Children from Sexual Assault Bill, 2010, that aims at recognising the broad range of sexual abuses to which children are particularly vulnerable is though a step in the right direction, it came rather late in the day. It has been noted in a government study has found that a vast majority of street children face sexual abuse in India, which is home to the world’s largest number of destitute children. The majority of the street children facing physical abuse are in the age group of 5-12 years.

Child mortality

Besides, it is clear at the start of the 21st century that levels of infant and child mortality in India are still fairly high, and there is huge scope for further reductions. For instance, the use of widespread immunisation, and the control of basic diarrhoeal diseases, can both bring about significant falls in early-age death rates in the years ahead. It seems probable that in the country’s poorest states the full impact of basic health measures in the past has often been limited by low levels of nutrition, high infection loads in the general environment, and various socio-economic and infrastructural limitations like low levels of maternal education, poor water quality and inferior transport facilities.

When the government tries to address the issues related to children, the apparent gender-neutrality often glosses over the fact even among children, girls are poorer off. The only problem is, except for the fact that both child development and women’s development plans and programmes have short-changed girls of two critical age-groups — of 0 to 6 and 15 to 19 — they are steadily disappearing from the ranks of the alive, and the graph of the ‘missing’ is on the rise. Efforts have been made to reduce gender inequalities among children through the formulation of National Plan for Action for the SAARC Decade (1991-2000) of the girl child. The year 1990 was declared as the year of girl child. September 24 marks International Girl Child Day.

A UNICEF report in 2010 said India ranked at 49th out of 193 countries in descending order of the Under Five Mortality Rate (U5MR). What is worrisome is that every year, about 12 million girls are born in India; a third of these girls die in the first year of their life; three million, or 25 per cent, do not survive to see their fifteenth birthday. The child mortality rate between 0- 4 years for girl child is 20.6 per cent, two per cent more than that of boys (18.6 per cent). A large number of deaths in early childhood account for the skewed overall sex ratio and there is enough evidence to indicate that gender bias in the allocation of food and health care is widely prevalent.

Prioritising the girl child would have multi-pronged effects, the foremost among which would be that such a step would address the problem of centuries-old gender neglect and gender marginalisation where girls are bound by various cultural norms, poverty, feudal values, caste, class and religion. To undo that would require a strong-willed effort on the part of the government and not just paying a lip service. Is the government ready to walk the extra mile?

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