Spare A Thought For Children, Especially Girl-child

Updated: Nov 10 2002, 05:30am hrs
Come November 14, India will observe Childrens Day. It is a touching tribute to the memory of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but is it anything more To children it is a holiday, to governments it is a ritual and to others it has no special meaning.

There is a Tamil proverb which, loosely translated, reads Child and God are where they are celebrated. I cannot write about the ways in which we celebrate God. We worship God, we propitiate God, we invoke the name of God, we fear God, we ask God for favours, we ask for votes in the name of God, we threaten people with the wrath of God, but do we celebrate God I do not know. If there is anyone who truly celebrates God, I shall be happy to hear from her or him.

I do know, however, that we do not celebrate our children. Please do not confuse celebrating the birthday of a child with celebrating the child. The fact that one is blessed with a child, that one can afford to have a child, educate the child and give love and much more to the child is itself a cause for celebration.

In developed countries children are considered a resource. One of the reasons for treating children as a resource is that they are so scarce. The fertility rate in many developed countries has fallen below the replacement rate. Populations are stable or have declined. It is only immigration that is adding to the growth in populations.

Once, I was travelling in Germany and for nearly 200 kilometres we did not see a single child of five years or below on the streets. Finally, we reached a border town in Germany and were taken to visit a hospital. There was a huge celebration in the hospital. There were banners and buntings everywhere. They were honouring the Mother of the Year. A lady had delivered her sixth child, and mother and child were being discharged from the hospital amidst great jubilation.

I do not deny that there are poor and neglected children even in the developed world, but the causes are somewhat different than the causes in the developing world. The biggest cause and curse is the poverty of a country. Abject and enduring poverty have created a new kind of child: the child with no childhood. Now there is a baby, and then there is the adult. What happened to childhood The baby did not play, the baby did not learn the alphabets, the baby did not have toys, the baby did not go to school, the baby did not have a birthday celebration. Simply put, the child did not have a childhood at all.

In India, these children have acquired peculiar descriptions. Many of them are child workers. Government denies that there are any. Government chooses to call them working children. They make match sticks in Tamil Nadu, roll beedies in Andhra Pradesh, pick tendu leaves in Orissa, weave carpets in Uttar Pradesh. There is no denying the fact that they are working when they should be studying or playing.

We have drop-out children. In no comparable country is there such a high drop-out rate. After dropping out, the child is pushed into doing low-skill work. Not only is a childhood wasted, but also scarce resources of the State are wasted in educating a child for just three or four or five years. When a child drops out after such a minimal period in school, there is empirical evidence to show that the child will regress into illiteracy. Even if that child retains basic literacy as an adult, her skills may barely extend to signing her name or count small numbers.

Then, there are the street-children. They were abandoned on the streets of a city. The street is their home. Their friends are other street-children. I am acquainted with the problems of bringing a semblance of order and dignity to the lives of these children. There are homes for street-children, largely due to private initiative, but many children cannot cope with the minimum discipline required to live in these homes. Street-children are the raw material for pimping, prostitution, dope-peddling and petty thievery. I have yet to hear of a success story emerging frm the ranks of street-children. It is a pity that governments that proclaim their concern for abandoned cattle (even dead cattle) have no concern at all for street-children. I think pinjaropoles and goshalas should wait until we are able to provide for the thousands of street-children.

In my view, the most hapless child is the girl-child. She is the child whose right to be born, and if born to exist, is in peril. She is the unwanted child. Expectant mothers (and their mothers and mothers-in-law) dread her birth. They will do anything to find out what the foetus contains.

Look at the worsening female sex ratio. No State, barring Kerala, has a female sex ratio of over 1000 to 1000 males. For all-India, the ratio is 933. Daman & Diu has the lowest ratio of 709. Rural India has a better ratio than urban India. This is not a biological or statistical quirk visited upon India. It is the result of female infanticide, plain and simple.

It is not a problem of modern India or of independent India. When demographic statistics were first collected in India in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that in some villages there were no girl babies at all. The ratio has declined from 972 females (for every 1000 males) in 1901 to 927 females in 1991 and has slightly improved to 933 in 2001.

It begins with sex-selective abortion. UNICEF reported that in Bombay, in 1984, of the 8000 foetuses that were aborted after sex determination tests, 7999 were females. Infanticide is widespread and is overwhelmingly committed by women. John-Thor Dahlburg found that since many births took place in isolated villages with only females present, the death of a child was easily attributed to natural causes. If, miraculously, the girl child was born and survived, she usually became the victim of malnutrition and disease.

This Childrens Day, please spare a thought for children, especially the girl-child. If you can, celebrate the girl-child, even if it is your own child or grand child.