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Making a dent in the mindsets

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

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New initiatives to hold back the alarming fall in the sex ratio have yielded positive results in Gujarat.

THOSE who walked on this planet, those who struggled in various metiers in their fields and homes, victims of disasters and wars in villages and cities, have made history in different areas. And then there are those who are not allowed to be born!

March saw an entire week dedicated to the cause of women. The week was full of events such as workshops, seminars and awareness campaigns, held across cities, towns and villages the world over, primarily dedicated to women and their empowerment. While some strongly feel that such programmes are a waste of time and serve no real purpose, others vouch that these are effective methods, which can impact gender-related mindsets, attitudes and prevalent practices. The point that gender disparity exists is driven home by the rapidly falling sex ratio, particularly in the 0-6 age group. According to the 2001 census, the overall sex ratio for the country is 933, while the corresponding figure for the 0-6 age group is 927. In the case of Punjab, this figure is as low as 793, and Haryana is close on its heels with a sex ratio of 820. India ranks 124th - as indicated by the Gender Development Index (GDI) - among the 173 nations listed in the Human Development Report 2002.

Gender disparities manifest themselves in many ways, but often surface in the form of discrimination against female foetuses. One basic cause of gender inequality is a rigid mindset - social and economic structures based on formal and informal practices, which have ossified over centuries. Female foeticide is a horrific malady. It is shameful that it exists in modern-day India. This mindset certainly needs to be changed.

Gujarat's sex ratio is 921, which is below the national average of 933. The corresponding figure for the 0-6 group is 878, as against the national average of 927. Disturbed by these numbers and envisioning a society free from discrimination against women, the Gujarat government is giving final touches to a gender equity policy. While policy and legal frameworks provide the necessary supporting environment, these alone can never cure such maladies afflicting our society. Social transformation requires a mass movement, advocacy cutting across various segments and strict enforcement of existing laws. With the active coordination and participation of government organisations, Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), social groups, the police, the judiciary and academic institutions, such efforts have started across several districts of Gujarat.

District authorities along with NGOs and other organisations are undertaking joint efforts. Schemes providing financial incentives to parents of girl children, such as the Balika Samridhi Yojana and the Vidya Lakshmi scheme, have been introduced in an effort to hold back the steep fall in the sex ratio. Chetna, an NGO working for this cause, has a presence in over 160 villages. Through a network of over 60 NGOs - the Health Communication Network - Chetna is disseminating information on the falling sex ratio, its implications and attendant issues. Self-help groups and Mahila Mandals are also actively championing the cause of the missing and unborn girl child. Ilaben Vakharia of Chetna has done extensive work on advocacy, compiling available material on this in Gujarati and circulating it extensively to people, including adolescents in schools and colleges, in cities and villages. In Amreli district, elected women representatives of panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) have been specially selected as the ambassadors of the fight against female foeticide. Using local art forms such as Dayra, Nataks and role-plays, the message has been carried to a large number of villages.

On Chetna's intervention, 200 young women studying at the Nardipur campus of the Mahila Gram Vidyapeeth have resolved not to undergo sex determination tests and are encouraging others to do the same. Vasanta Rathwa, who works with Mahila Samakhya, an NGO, at Jambugoda in Panchmahals district, has dissuaded many women from terminating their pregnancy, which these women had planned to do after finding out that they were going to have a daughter. It would have required tremendous courage, determination and toil for Vasanta to make a dent. Undoubtedly, there is a need to `awaken' women and get them to question and overcome social pressures. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen observed: "When anti-female bias in action (such as sex-specific abortion) reflects the hold of traditional masculinist values from which mothers themselves may not be immune, what is needed is not just freedom of action but also freedom of thought - in women's ability and willingness to question received values. Informed and critical agency is important in combating inequality of every kind. Gender inequality, including its many faces, is no exception."

Our country has some of the most gender sensitive laws and policies. Our Constitution guarantees equality to all citizens irrespective of sex, caste, community, language, and religion. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution were landmark events empowering women politically. When reservation of seats for women in the legislative Assemblies and Parliament comes into effect, it will be yet another historical milestone.

WOMEN today are doing well in all walks of life, even in non-traditional careers. I am reminded of a recent morning, when on an early morning flight, I was awakened from my forty winks by the soft voice of our captain, Nivedita Bhasin. It set off a cascade of thoughts. Women are not only stepping out and into various new professions but also excelling in these. Women, just as men, are destined to be successful. They are well on their way and this is certainly helping in changing the mindset.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 25, 2003.)

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