GIRLS’ RIGHTS IN INDIA
A Leave No Girl Behind interview with Nyna Caputi
- How does the future of a typical girl in India look? In other words, describe the typical life of a girl child from when she is born – what can she look forward to and what can she expect?
There are generally three categories of girls in India:
Those girls who are valued – I fall into that category. I was born in Bangalore in South India. My father wanted 4 daughters, and I was loved and even perhaps pampered. I was treated equal to my brother – we attended the same schools, got the same gifts, my dad also wanted me to study hard and become an engineer or a doctor. It’s the mindset of the parents that determines how girls are treated.
In the second category, the parents love both kids (girl and boy), but sons are more valuable. They send their sons to better schools while daughters must be prepared for marriage one day. The belief is that girls with too much education are not marriageable, so girls are sent to study “home science” which involves cooking and keeping house.
The third category consists of families where girls are considered a burden and they’re neglected in various ways. They may only be breastfed for a few days if at all, they’re not taken to the doctor when sick, they receive less food and less clothes than their brothers. Girls are generally made to feel devalued and inferior to men. This cycle of neglect, and in some cases violence, continues with marriage.
- Girl children, even in utero, are danger in certain parts of India. What is the reason for this and what are the consequences?
Unfortunately this goes back over a century to the time when the farming community was disbanded. Originally with farming being a prevalent livelihood amongst families, people had lots of kids. The boys would work in the fields while girls would prepare the produce for sale. It was a family effort. Then with technology advancing and mechanization, the need for girls to help with the farming was reduced. Women were not needed as they once were – they weren’t as important any more.
Another facet of this issue has its roots in the Dowry system. When the Dowry first came into place, it was a gift of rice, grains and other necessities given to the bride as a gift for herself. Over time, the dowry evolved into a gift for the bridegroom and his family. Today, although it’s illegal to ask for a dowry, many girls will not be wed unless they have a good dowry. Girls’ families may incur great debt to give the bridegroom’s family a dowry. This debt can even take the rest of their lives to pay off. For this reason, families don’t want daughters because of the financial burden. There is also a lot of pressure for parents to marry a girl off.
Yet another reason for girls not being wanted is that parents want their family name to be continued and only sons would be able to do this.
When girls marry, according to tradition, they’re no longer considered part of their own family, but rather part of their husband’s family. Therefore, sons are considered responsible for looking after parents in their old age. So parents want sons for security – there’s no social system in India to help care for the elderly.
Some people believe that when a parent dies and is cremated, they will only go on to the next life if a son lights the funeral pyre.
So it has become ingrained in culture and sons have become like a status symbol.
Although not publicized, India has a two child policy, so if the first born child is a daughter, then parents want to ensure that the second child is a son. To do this, if a daughter is born, they may abort the child or even kill the baby girl once she is born by either abandoning the child, or strangling or suffocating her.
It must be emphasized that this trend exists among some communities, not every Indian family.
- In which parts of India does this happen?
Mainly in the north – Delhi, Punjab, Gujurat, Haryana. It happens less in the South where it seems that women are more valued – Kerala in the South (a communist state), has a 100% literacy rate among women.
- What is the long-term impact of this genocide and why is it a matter of life and death to stop it right now?
The impact can already be felt. Every ten years, there is a census done in India. The 2011 census showed that the sex ratio is the worst since India’s independence in 1947 – you’d think with the booming economy it would be better. But the average ratio is 1000 boys to 914 girls. But there are places where the ratio is around 1000 boys to 500girls. India’s population is over 1 billion.
In the North, because of the genocide of girls, there are less women of marriageable age. The result of this is that men resort to bride buying or trafficking. Girls in Kerala (in the South) and even countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh which border India, are tricked and trapped into marrying men from the North. These women are then trapped in a state with a totally different culture and language – each state in India has a unique culture. These women end up as sex slaves since they are sometimes “shared” among men in the family. The trafficking of minor girls results in child marriages. Because of the situation, there is also more violence against women. Some parents are desperate to get their girls married and have no dowry to give, so their daughters also end up in such marriages.
Women are considered to be at fault if they produce girl, even though it is the male chromosome that determines gender. Men may divorce their wives if they bear no sons, and so poorer families are pressured into killing girls, having abortions based on gender, and the women become victims of violence.
- On the opposite side of the scale, how will things change in India if the girls are not only given the chance of life, but are also empowered?
India has many strong women. We now have the first female president in India – something that few countries have. Years ago, we also had a female Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi. So girls can do and achieve what boys can.
Girls can provide for parents in old age and they don’t have to be a burden. They can be of financial help. For example, in poor families now, if is found that there are men who are spending their money on gambling and drinking, while their wives provide for the family by working as house maids. Women are strong. There are some leading entrepreneurs in India who are women – astronauts, sports women, etc.
In Hinduism there are many goddesses that are worshipped. People pray to the female Goddess, Laxmi – the Goddess of wealth. The irony is that people pray to her, but when Laxmi is born in their own house (in the form of a girl), they kill her.
- What is the solution to the problem? In other words, how can the mindset of the people who carry out this genocide, be changed?
It needs to come from the top – from the government. People should be encouraged to have girls. Women need to stand up for themselves and refuse to pay dowry. People need to stand up and stop the mistreatment of women.
- How did you get involved in this particular cause and why is it so close to your heart?
My husband and I were looking to adopt a baby girl from India – we thought it would be easy to get a girl because the population is so huge. In the district where the orphanage was, there was a lake nearby. At the orphanage, someone told us about girls being drowned in the lake. I was shocked to know that even today baby girls were being killed. I did some research and discovered the statistic that over 50 million girls in India are missing; over 7000 girls are killed before or after birth through abortions and infanticide. My husband and I are film makers and were so shaken by the stats that we decided to bring awareness and change – the media is powerful and brings awareness to social issues.
- What can we do as a global community to change the situation in India?
If one can pressure the Indian government by writing letters to them – not just Indian people writing letters, but the International community doing this too. Also, people can help by supporting non-profits in India by volunteering or financial means – these organisations feel alone and have no support. The issue of female genocide is largely ignored, because even some people who are in positions of power have been known to have their girls aborted because they don’t consider women valuable. We need pressure from the International community. Look for organisations in India to support, and empower women and educate them about the value of daughters. Create dialogue amongst others, and create awareness in the community to bring change.
It is important to say that there are women who do stand up to their husbands at the cost of their marriage because they want girls, and women who provide for their daughters. They prove their families wrong and become successful. There are fathers who love their daughters – who are proud of them and provide education for them; families who treat girls and women with love and respect. There are activists working to end this issue, empower women. There is lots of positive stuff happening.
Nyna Caputi is the producer and director of several short films which have received recognition and acclaim. She originally hails from India and is passionate about changing the situation for girls there. Using her skills, Nyna is bringing worldwide awareness to the situation that millions of girls face through her award-winning documentary, Petal in the Dust. She believes that by telling the stories of ongoing bias and violence women face, through female foeticide and infanticide, this will help stimulate action in the Indian and International communities to bring about permanent change.