By Rituparna Chakraborty
“I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity,” Michelle Obama. This message brought tears in the eyes of young schoolgirls in London when the US First Lady addressed them in 2009. Geeta (she could be any girl is any remote village in India) is a young girl from Majuli, Assam. She faced bias right from her birth. Discriminated, she was made to do household work right from childhood. Alas, no stories of misfortunes of our girl-children seem to reach or touch the chord of Indian leaders and policy-makers to improve their plight.
The female population is largely considered as lesser privileged citizens in India. Girl-children like Geeta are deprived of basic needs like food and education. This arises from the notion that females are inferior to males and born to perform normative gender roles as someone’s daughter, sister, wife and mother. Life is full of a question mark for girl-child in India right from the day she is conceived in the womb. “Will I live or will I be aborted” is a haunting and excruciating journey most female foetuses go through. Geeta too faced this question. Our country has one of the world’s most skewed sex ratios due to sex-selective abortion and female foeticide. According to the most recent census, in 2011, there were 914 girls to every 1,000 boys for children up to the age of six, but in some northern states that ratio dropped below 850.
The struggle for survival doesn’t stop here. If girl-children are lucky enough to be born, continued gender-based discrimination – like lack of care, nutrition – ensures they die within five years. The female child population in the age group of 0-6 years declined from 78.83 million in 2001 to 75.84 million in 2011. A study in 2018 published in the journal Lancet Global Health has found that in India there is on an average 239,000 excess deaths each year of girls under the age of five owing to neglect due to gender discrimination.
More than 50% of girls in the age group of 5 to 9 years are illiterate. If they reach school as kids, adolescent females are the first to drop out. At the secondary level, girls like Geeta drop out more than boys. An estimate shows that for every 100 girls in rural India only a single one reaches class 12. According to statistics, around 63.5% of female students quit school during adolescence. The reasons for this whopping number are lack of facilities in schools, especially toilets, giving rise to privacy concerns and early marriage. Schools being far away, concern over the safety of girls, incidents of eve-teasing and forms of harassments on the way to or from the school are also reasons for this huge dropout. Further, traditional gender norms force girls to do household chores and sibling care. In the absence of a bridging mechanism in secondary education, dropped out girls like Geeta find it tough to re-enter education. Special training, e-learning, on-site learning with materials and required infrastructure are some of the provisions which will help dropped-out girls continue with their education.
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A very low percentage of women are able to enrol for higher education. The disparity between the number of male and female students remains wide in higher education. For every 1,000 men who never get access to education, there are 1,403 women who do not. That is almost one and a half times more women out of college than men. Which is why, in spite of more women accessing higher education, India’s Female Labour Force Participation has dropped by 8% in the last decade and a half. Humanities and education are seen as safe choices and make girls like Geeta more ‘marriageable’. So even when women are educated, the number of men who get trained in professional courses is way above women.
The sad saga of gender bias continues for Geeta in the job sector as well. The new World Bank Report has found that more than a third of all job advertisements in India explicitly specify the preferred gender of the prospective employee, which more often than not is male. Six in every 10 such jobs prefer male candidates, even as women continue to be preferred for low-quality, low-status and low-paid informal jobs. Our country’s rapid urbanization has not yet encouraged more women to join the labour force. A country can’t develop in an inclusive and sustainable way when half of the population is not fully participating in the economy. Regressive mindset, archaic legislation and policies deter women from entering the workforce. In the absence of suitable jobs and working conditions, lack of support for childcare and safe transportation, many women opt out of employment after marriage.
Despite there being a direct relation between female literacy and female empowerment, educated women quit working after marriage under societal pressure, more so when their husbands are working well. Those who are allowed to work are often subjected to sexual harassment and unequal pay at the workplace. Either way, women continue to be sufferers in our male-dominated society.
The status of men and women in society will never be at par until the differences between the education levels of boys and girls are bridged. If a girl-child is fortunate enough to be born in the right womb and at the right pin code, she is privileged. Otherwise, her chances of existing and thriving are slim. Our girls like Geeta deserve better. Unlike urban girls, Geeta still has to live in the zeitgeist of regressive India. From birth, she faces inequality in the family, education, and job and its responsibility of the government, society, and enterprises to let her shine. Geeta’s emancipation lies in fixing the agenda of Formalization, Industrialization, Urbanization, Financialization, and Human Capital. In addition, needless to say, she needs a lot of courage and fortitude from all quarters to survive in the world of uncertainties.
(Writer is Co-Founder & EVP TeamLease Services Ltd. Views expressed are her own)