Promoting the value of the girl child
Change is vital if India is to reduce gender divide and allow women a role in society and the Church
A pregnant Catholic woman came to tell me her Catholic husband warned that if she produced a girl child he would shove it back into her uterus!
Does his attitude surprise us in the Christian community which is known to have a better girl/boy child sex ratio (CSR) in India? The deeply embedded bias against the girl child is a reality across our country and seeps into the Christian mindset as well.
With the recent release of the provisional data of the 2011 census we think back to 2001 when the CSR registered a decline and raised alarm in government and civil society. Government vowed to work to change this reality and religious leaders pledged their support as well.
But 2011 shows that perhaps nothing - or not enough - has been done because the CSR is down to an alarming 914/1000 girl/boys with metro cities registering figures much lower than the rural areas. What is interesting is that the general literacy rates have risen. The gender literacy ratio shows a perceptible increase in female literacy. But we just do not seem to let go of our bias against the girl child. Why?
Tradition-bound families are so conscious of their name and fame, that they are unwilling to go against the tide to take a stand in favour of the girl child. So they continue to believe that the son is required to take care of them in old age, the son has to perform their last rites (Hindus), the son can achieve high status and position at work and in society and bring accolades to the family. A girl will be someone’s daughter-in-law probably with a lot of problems that bring more pain than gain to the family. There is no getting away from this reality. So even if literacy and wealth have increased in the Indian population, the girl child remains a casualty.
You can still witness mourning at the birth of a girl and rejoicing at the birth of a boy. Many think that bringing up a girl is like “watering a plant in your neighbour's garden”. A girl is a burden, she has to be nurtured with care so that she will fetch a suitable husband preferably above her station in life; her virginity has to be preserved – and in these promiscuous times it is difficult. How do parents juggle a good education and keep boy friends at bay? Then when she marries she carries away a substantial part of family wealth as a dowry.
The Catholic Church spends a lot of resources and energy in hammering the anti-abortion message. The government claims it is getting stricter in the implementation of the law against sex determination tests during pregnancy. While our orphanages continue to swell with girls the CSR continues to decline.
What we have all failed to realize is that as long as people do not change their attitude towards the girl child and women in general, nothing will change. People have decided that the girl is a burden and they will do everything and anything- use their education and wealth - to eliminate this burden. This is quite easy in our country, ridden as it is with corruption.
A change of attitude can only come with multi-pronged efforts using advertising, education and positive image-building measures. Aggressive advertising using different media can reach people far and wide.
The introduction of gender studies in education curricula, awareness programs conducted at health centres, and for parents through the Parent Teacher Associations and other bodies, are necessary.
Increasing opportunities for women to occupy leadership positions, positive images of woman coming through films, theatre and literature are important to penetrate mindsets to help people realize that the girl child can be an asset and not a liability.
The Catholic Church in India has the best opportunity to introduce awareness programmes through the wide network of parishes and educational institutions. But we have to lead by example.
The general attitude towards women in the Church gives women the strong message that they are indeed second class. Women have no voice or decision making in the Church. A bishop summed it up best when, during a tea break of an awareness session on the girl child, he said to me privately: “The situation of the girl child will change only when she can become a bishop!”
Awake, my brothers and sisters in the Church, here is an opportunity to give India the true image of the girl child whom we believe is made in the image and likeness of God. She must be allowed to live life in abundance.
Let us lead by example – by using every avenue available to change attitudes and demonstrate that we value women enough to give them responsibility and leadership in the Church because we believe this to be the true message of Jesus.
Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Office of Laity with responsibility for the Women’s Desk. A freelance writer, she has a diploma in Theology for Laity from the Bombay Diocesan Seminary and is a woman activist working in India