In the past two decades, the girl child has been a subject of both rhetoric and action. Many positive steps have been taken to secure her rights. While increased participation and enrolment of girls in schools is a positive step, we do see an increased backlash which runs parallel to her progress/ aspirations in the public sphere such as education or employment and is expressed in the form of rise in cases of rapes, harassment for dowry, female foeticide etc. Government and civil society must renew their commitment to child rights by securing the right of girls – particularly her right to be born and to live in a secure world as an equal citizen, says the executive summary of “Wings 2014. The World of India’s Girls: A Status Report”:
India today stands at a unique place in history: we are a young country (over 65% of the population is below the age of 35 years; and 39% is 18 years or below)1; a country that has seen the emergence of a middle class of over 60 million2 making it a hub of consumerism and private enterprise; a country whose economy has quadrupled between 1991 – 20113 when the first wave of economic reforms was unleashed. The demographic and economic change has been accompanied by a fundamental change of attitude on issues of governance.
Through participation in a number of mass agitations and vigorous voting in the recent elections, the confident and assertive youth have expressed their aspiration to see India emerging as a developed nation free from corruption. Amidst this climate of hope, aspiration and dramatic growth, the girl child is beginning to dream and aspire. However, her family and the society at large have not kept pace with her aspirations. More than twenty years after the country opened its economy to the world putting itself on fast track of growth, the girl child remains an object of neglect, malnutrition, exploitation, rape, brutality, and murder, despite the many positive steps taken to secure her rights.
Given the sheer number of girls in the country who are 18 years or below – close to 225 million – it becomes crucial to pay urgent attention to the status of the girl child.
The discrimination against the girl child starts even before she is born. Even after she is (allowed to be) born, widespread neglect makes her survival precarious during early childhood. Together, these two factors ensure that we bear the tragic burden of being a nation of disappearing daughters – as many as 36 million of them.
The Census-2011 revealed a deficit of 7.1 million girls as against boys in the 0–6 age group a sizable increase over Census-2001 (6 million) and Census-1991 (4.2 million). The reasons for this ‘missing girls’ phenomenon are not far to seek. Deep gender inequities still remain, as do the preoccupation with ‘son preference’ manifested in the horrific practice of female foeticide.
This cuts across classes and according to a study published in Lancet, is most prevalent among the most educated and the richest 20% households. NFHS data corroborates this, showing that both Child Sex Ratio (CSR) and Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) vary in inverse proportion to wealth; the highest SRB is reported by the lowest wealth quintile (954 females per 1000 males).
Also, Muslims – a community with lower social and economic indices – have an increasing CSR. These facts defy the old notions such as ‘poor/uneducated families are more likely to commit female foeticide’. The first step, right after birth — and a crucial determinant of survival — is immunization, which is where we find, she is less likely to get full immunization, as opposed to her male siblings.
The proportion of male children who are fully immunized is 4% higher than female children. The same trend continues in the case of health & nutrition. As time passes, nutritional outcomes for both boys and girls in 1-4 years age group seem to decline. However, they decline much faster for girls. By the time girls are 4 years old, they are much more likely than their brothers to be stunted, underweight, and have low Mid Upper Arm Circumference (widely considered the best measure of under-nutrition).
In the sphere of education, there has been an across-the-board rise in enrollment of girls, largely due to the Right to Education Act getting enforced in 2010, as well as concerted government drives towards boosting enrolment. According to DISE data, as against 40 million girls in 1990-91, approx. 65 million were enrolled in school in 2010-11. However, education is still marked by gender inequity.
In 2012, 58% of all private school children in the age group of 6-14 years were boys. Data also indicates that girls with special needs have lesser access to education than their male counterparts – roughly in the proportion of 45% v/s 55%. Although school enrolments have shown an upward trend over the past decades, retention and consequently transitions to successive cycles of education are a matter of concern.
Child protection finds place in the UNCRC framework in the form of a set of rights that protect children from abuse, exploitation and violence. In case of the girl child, there is an intersection of disadvantage — of being a child and being a girl — and the protection needs therefore, become multidimensional. Violence against the girl child is perpetrated in families, households and in larger common spaces and occurs through all stages of growing up.
The report adopts the ‘systems approach’ to discuss these protection issues, picking up early marriage as a subject of detailed discussion. The NFHS-3 estimated that as many as 47% of the women reported to have been married by 18 years of age. In fact, estimates project that 130 million girls in South Asia will be married as children between 2010 and 2030. The moment a girl hits adolescence the parents want to get her married off due to concerns over her safety.
Parents and community members feel that, “early marriage protects the girl’s marriageability which can be destroyed by premarital sexual violence or choice”. This can be corroborated by the fact that in times of conflict or disasters when the social order is shaken, girls are married off even earlier, as seen subsequent to the communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar (Uttar Pradesh).
There are other manifestations of the abuse that await a girl child, most primarily in the form of sexual abuse. One of the biggest hurdles in studying abuse is the lack of credible and substantial statistical evidence of violence. A study by Ministry of Women & Child Development (2007) reveals that 45.3% of the children experiencing abuse were girls. NFHS 3 indicated that of all reported cases of sexual abuse in India, 14.2% girls experienced the first incidence of sexual violence between the ages 15 to 19 years, 4.8% were abused first between the age of 10 to 15 years and 0.4% between the age of 0 to 10 years.
This seems to indicate that girls in the 15-19 age group are most vulnerable to the risk of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse of girls (mostly unreported, which means that we have misleading statistics about crimes against girls) is prevalent in every space, including, ironically, the spaces designed to protect her: her home/family, institutional care centres and all public spaces. And yet, there was no separate provision in the Indian Penal Code for sexual offences against children till the Code was amended in 2013 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act was passed as recently as in 2012.
Institutionalized sexual abuse plays out through trafficking where young girls are sold within and across countries, although there are non-sexual reasons for trafficking young girls as well. The exact numbers of trafficked children are hard to find, and hence the actual magnitude of the problem remains unknown. This brings us to the third type of exploitation faced by the girl child – one that happens at the workplace.
While feminization of the Indian workforce and the invisible contribution of women to the economy have been covered vastly by feminist economists worldwide, this invisibility also holds true for the girl child’s participation in the workforce. Outside her own home, the girl child is a common sight in many urban homes, working as a domestic worker in inhuman conditions, and often subjected to abuse. The report weighs these formidable issues against the resources invested by the State in social sector in general and in protecting, nourishing and educating the girls in particular.
We see a trend of decline in public investment in the social sector and a marginal share of the girl child in the budget of the ministry that is primarily responsible for protecting her interests. Overall, in the last two decades, the share of Health and Education in total social sector expenditure by all states fell from 16% and 52.2% (1990-91) to 11.7% and 45.8% (2006- 07) respectively. As a result, the per capita health expenditure in India (Rs 96) is much lower than that in China and USA (Rs.261 and Rs.5274 respectively)5.
As far as the girl child is concerned, over the last three financial years, out of a total annual outlay of Rs15000-17000 crore allocated to the Ministry of Women & Child Development, the total share of the major girl-centric schemes ranged between Rs.477 crore to Rs.681 crore (a mere 3.1-4.4% of the total). In the face of these crippling realities, there have also been some encouraging developments in the last two decades that bode well for the girl child. In this regard, India’s signing of the UNCRC in 1989 was possibly the most significant landmark of the Nineties.
Government of India has certainly prioritized child protection after 2005. The recent and widely discussed legislation has been the one on sexual assault, pushed forth after the Nirbhaya tragedy (2012), which has expanded the definition of sexual assault to include molestation, stalking, acid attacks and so on; in a parallel development, legal processes too have also been made more child friendly and gender sensitive such as the Supreme Court ruling against the ghastly use of the “two finger test” to establish rape.
Apart from the RTE Act, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (the national flagship program on education that focuses on the universalisation of primary education), KGBV Scheme which provides residential school facilities to girls in remote and backward areas and National Programme for Education of Girls at the Elementary Level (NPEGEL) that works towards ensuring that girls don’t drop out, are some of the important milestones in the education sector. One of the first important announcements made by the new government that took charge at the Centre in May 2014 was regarding the Beti Padhao-Beti Bachao scheme, launched with the twin objectives of protecting and educating the girl child. In the health sector, programs such as Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) which focuses on the adolescent population to not only provide supplementary nutrition but also to address other issues that adolescents face, are a step in the right direction.
The government has also realized the need to provide crèches for children of working women under the ICDS structure, so as to unburden the adolescent girls of their household duties. Additionally, to battle trafficking, anti-trafficking units have been set up, along with efforts at training police personnel on tracking the victims of trafficking in pockets where trafficking is prevalent. Policy now also recognizes the fact that trafficking is an organized crime so that “agencies” can be brought to book.
Aside from these significant changes, perhaps the most vital shift taking place is the shift away from the traditional approach of looking at the girl child as ‘someone’s-wife, sister or simply a mother-in-waiting’. Policymakers have now shifted their paradigm from the ‘lifecycle approach’ to the ‘capabilities approach’ which recognizes the girl child as an individual in her own right. The 11th Five Year Plan asserts that adolescent girls need to be recognized as “individuals with human rights” rather than just as “prospective” mothers.
This report strongly recommends the following steps:
- We recommend that a National Policy for the Girl Child be formulated to guide and inform all laws, policies, plans and programmes directed at the girl child.
- It is important to operationalize the capabilities approach – first articulated in the 11th Five Year Plan – in subsequent policies, esp. the National Policy for Children (NPC), 2013 and plans meant for girls.
- Policy-makers and administrators must clearly recognize caste-based and communal violence as a distinct category of violation of girls’ rights, something which the NPC, 2013 has not done.
- CCT (Conditional Cash Transfer) schemes as a strategy to address discrimination against girls, suffer from certain design issues, discussed later in this report. We need to evaluate the return on public investment in CCT schemes.
- The elimination of child marriage should be a time-bound and measurable goal. There is a need to prioritize and make concerted effort to campaign against the social acceptance of child marriage. A step in this direction could be extensive promotion of use of Childline as a tool to alert and prevent child marriages.
- Girls in child care institutions are subject to sexual abuse which needs to be investigated and, the punishment for crimes perpetrated by staff in child care institutions established under the Juvenile Justice Act 2000 must be made more stringent
- Stronger implementation of PC & PNDT Act with better conviction rates will act as a deterrent to sex selective abortions.
- Safety of girls in schools is a neglected area of study despite its impacts on girls’ dropout rate. The involvement of school management committees in ensuring safety of girls in schools is advised.
- In order to understand the extent of involvement of girls in work, time use surveys must be conducted through which it will be possible to understand how far girls are involved in child care, household chores, and homestead activities.
- In order to combat trafficking for sex work, domestic service etc. ground-level child protection committees formed under ICPS need to be trained to track vulnerable girls, ensure their safety and network with the concerned SJPUs and CWCs to find missing girls.
- System for tracking and reporting of child abuse needs to be made fully operational, which was the idea at the heart of ICPS when it was initiated.