If there is one particular thing, just a single factor, that strongly determines the course that people’s lives take, what would it be? Let’s not try to answer this question in several words or sentences by spelling out the various decisive factors. There certainly is a wide range of elements that shape the lives of people.
However, if we have to name just one most important facet that is not only crucial but also inexorable in governing every individual’s life, what do we think it is?
Is it the person’s economic status, that is subject to change on several occasions in a lifetime, or one’s religion or, especially in the context of our county, one’s caste? Is it the family that one is born into or the amount of education that one acquires? Or is it the person’s inherent nature or the decisions that one takes for oneself over time? If we think hard enough, the one logical factor that is ought to come to our minds, that at least comes to my mind
more often than not, is ‘gender’ or the ‘sex’ that one is born with.
During birth announcements, the only thing about newborns that is sought to be known is whether it’s a girl or a boy. There is no doubt that the sex we are born with — our biological characteristics — lay the foundation of our lives. However, our sex — male or female — is usually blown out of proportion and is the basis on which various conditions and restrictions are imposed on us. Does nature simply assign males and females distinct biological roles or does it also assert a gender-based ranking system as assumed by humans especially in parochial societies and countries like ours? In creating mainly two distinct sexes, isn’t nature’s intention to create two halves or two equals that complement one another in together bringing life to a full circle?
While gender inequality and biases against women are prevalent in distinct ways and magnitudes across the globe, even in the developed countries of the West, let us talk only in the context of India where gender discrimination and the poor status of women is certainly a massive social problem. There are several kinds of inequalities in our country, most prominently on the basis of caste, religion and socio-economic class. But the inequality that stands out most starkly is that on the basis of gender — almost half of our population is female and very evidently suffers extreme discrimination on various fronts. In our country, being a woman automatically implies being inferior to men. Even in the case of children, not even sparing babies, being a girl comes with the tag of being secondary to boys.
The Perpetual Lesser Halves
Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen had in an essay written in 1990 for The New York Review of Books thrown light on the phenomenon of the country’s ‘missing women’ — over a hundred million women were simply ‘missing’ or had been eliminated from the country’s population owing to female infanticide, female foeticide and deaths of girls and women due to neglect following inadequate healthcare and nutrition owing to their sex. He had stated that while in Europe and North America the ratio of women to men was typically around 1.05 or 1.06 or higher, the same ratio in South Asia (including India), West Asia and China was as low as 0.94. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the biologically determined natural sex ratio at birth is 1.05 boy for every girl. This points to substantial differences in preferences for girls in the developed West and in conservative Asia.
As per the last population census conducted in 2011, the population ratio in India was 940 females per 100 males. This was slightly better than the sex ratio of 933 females per 1000 males as per the Census 2001. Census 2011 also gave the estimate that of our then total population of 1210.19 million, 48.50 per cent were females and 51.50 per cent were males.
According to a 2011 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, upto 12 million female foetuses had been aborted in the last three decades in India. It is believed that after sex determination tests and sex-selective abortions were made illegal in India in 1994, the sex ratio at birth (SRB) in the country began to stabilise. However, while the SRB in 1970 was 1060 males per 1000 females, in 2014 it rose to 1108 males per 1000 females.
This is despite the fact that “… biology seems on the whole to favour women. Considerable research has shown that if men and women receive similar nutritional and medical attention and general health care, women tend to live noticeably longer than men. Women seem to be, on the whole, more resistant to disease and in general hardier than men, an advantage they enjoy not only after they are forty years old but also at the beginning of life, especially during the months immediately following birth, and even in the womb. When given the same care as males, females tend to have better survival rates than males”, quoting from Sen’s above-mentioned essay.
Add to this the latest Economic Survey report released in January 2018 that discusses the concept of ‘son meta-preference’ among Indian parents who go out of their way to keep producing children till a desired number of sons is attained. According to the Survey report, India at present has as many as 21 million “unwanted” girls in the age group of 0-25 years because their parents kept producing children, or undesired daughters, in the hope of a male child.
The Survey, after analysing the sex ratio of the last child (SRLC) born to couples, found that the SRLC is skewed in favour of males and is biased against females. “Families where a son is born are more likely to stop having children than families where a girl is born. This is suggestive of parents employing ‘stopping rules’ — having children till a son is born and stopping thereafter,” it said. This fact pointed out in the Economic Survey 2018 is evident all around us — don’t we often see in various cultures across our diverse country that a large number of couples, from different socio-economic backgrounds, often have three or more children when the first two or three offspring are girls. In these cases, the youngest child is mostly a boy who is often the only male child. On the other had it can also be noticed in multiple cases that families where the first one or two children are male choose not to go ahead and have a third child to have a daughter.
The result is that these “unwanted” girl children live lives of direct or indirect abhorrence and neglect as a result of which they grow up to be unhealthy, often less educated and also filled with sexist notions passed on to them by their parents which they are likely to further pass on to their offspring in future. When such “unwanted” girls grow up in large families, their parents often have less resources to spend per child. As a consequence, the parents due to their preference for their male child/children are more likely to spend their limited resources on the medical, educational and nutritional expenses of their son(s) rather than daughters.
Traditions to Blame
For centuries, Indians across cultures have been conservative and tradition-bound. The distinct roles of men and women within families and societies have been clearly defined and strictly adhered to since time immemorial. Invasion of men into the well-defined roles of women and vice-versa are customarily disapproved. Even as we, as a country, have made substantial progress in terms of education, economics and technology, deep-rooted
antiquated traditions have continued to be followed in the name of maintaining our inherent value systems and adhering to various religions that usually assign secondary positions to women. The intervention of contemporary pragmatism, thanks to globalisation, that advocates equality of all especially of the genders has led to a battle of sorts
between such modern values and dogmatic, farcical traditions.
Women’s lives have since antiquity been controlled in the name of religion, culture and traditions. Many obsolete ‘rules’ of society are considered irrevocable and are carried out even in twenty-first century India irrespective of the levels of education attained or financial comforts acquired by both men and women. For instance, the belief that sons carry forward the family lineage and look after their parents in old age while daughters are to be given away in marriage is a thought-process that has been passed on to us across multiple generations and is a major reason why people, including young couples, desire male children. This holds true even in urban pockets where the concept of nuclear families is on the rise.
The pervasive custom of giving dowry to the groom’s family during a daughter’s wedding is another significant factor that discourages people from giving birth to girls. Rather than giving out their hard-earned money to someone else’s family, it is preferable to keep it within the household by passing it on to the son. The regressive dowry system has been flourishing even among people from educated and economically sound backdrops. In fact, it can be said that in several cases the more economically comfortable a bride’s family is, the more dowry they are expected to give to the groom’s family. Giving of less dowry or refusing to give it is often socially embarrassing.
Indian culture treats its women as Mother Goddesses and assigns them roles pertaining to domesticity on the premise of protecting and respecting them. It has been conventionally believed that women are the source of life and the givers of care, thus must be restricted to the confines of the home and the hearth to look after and nurture their families. On the other hand, men are believed to be the heroes — the breadwinners and the protectors of women. This belief is so widespread in our country that it appears to have been passed on genetically! Not only men but a large number of women themselves hold such beliefs that have resulted — after being combined with religious norms that are often biased against women — in the entrenched notion that men are ultimately superior to women and have a right to regulate women’s lives.
A contemporary reason for females being undesired, whether in families as children or at work places as employees, is the new-found security concerns that have arisen with increasing incidents of sexual attacks against girls and women. What is interesting is that while sexual assaults against females are themselves a consequence of women being assigned secondary status and being treated as objects rather than humans, such predatory assaults further add fuel to the fire of sex-based discrimination, thus creating a sequence of reciprocal cause and effect.
Women Lack Autonomy
In India, girls and women have culturally been protected and taken care of by the males of their families — fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. Even as we claim to modernise as a people, significant life decisions for females are often taken by their families without giving much weight to what the daughter or the wife desires. Matters pertaining to the education, professional choices and marriages of women are subjects of discussion in families across cultures that keep in mind the restrictions placed by societies on women’s capabilities and freedoms. In the case of males, even if such decisions are taken by families they are based on what would be best suited to the male child’s happiness and progress and are taken keeping in mind his demands and desires. Moreover, traditionally it is the father’s decision that is the last word, not the mother’s.
Another significant factor that must be discussed here is the economic vulnerability of women. According to the India Development Report released by the World Bank in 2017, our country has one of the lowest female participation in the workforce, ranking 120th among the 131 countries for which data was available. This is an offshoot of the traditionally assigned primary role of women as homemakers. A large number of women do not opt to participate in the workforce at all due to perceptions that their priority is to look after the household while it is the men’s job to go out and earn a living. Even qualified women choose to give up their professions after matrimony and motherhood due to the same notions.
Also, domestic work and child care are considered to be the responsibilities of women; husbands and fathers seldom share these ‘feminine’ works. This makes many women who choose to work take up jobs that are beneath their qualifications and low paying as long as they can take out the time to focus on looking after their homes and families, a task that requires a lot of time and energy. It is also a fact that in case of a large number of women who are a part of the workforce, their earnings are in the hands of their husbands or families who collectively take all financial decisions, thus rendering women financially subservient. Thus, most women in our country are financially dependent on men and this leads to a chain reaction of subjugating women to inferiorities in various areas.
Women have for generations been denied bodily integrity. Even in the twenty-first century, the attires of girls and women are often pre-approved by their families. From a young age, girls are discouraged from wearing the clothes that their families disapprove of. Women who choose to wear clothes that are frowned upon by the societies they thrive in are judged and labelled in the most insensitive and outrageous ways. Every time there is debate over
sexual violence against women, someone or the other raises the point of women “asking for it” by wearing the wrong kind of clothes. This mindset stems from the archaic and misogynist belief that women are primarily means of sexual gratification of men and of procreation.
Talking about procreation, most women in our country are denied reproductive control by their families, communities and societies at large. While it is believed across global cultures that it’s women’s duties to bear children, in India and similar patriarchal societies it is believed that it’s a woman’s bounden duty to produce male heirs for their families. The decisions of a small minority of women who choose to remain unmarried or of married women (or couples) who choose to not have any children cause outrage among even the most educated people. While women who cross their pre-set early ‘marriageable age’ are pitied, most married women are under immense pressure to produce sons, failing which they are at the receiving end of a lot of social stigma.
Time To Stand Up and Change the status quo
Whether consciously or not, from very young ages we teach our little boys and girls to take their preordained places in social structures rather than make choices for themselves. This is exactly how gender prejudices get ingrained in mindsets and get passed on across generations. Gender biases that have been going on for centuries are accepted and assimilated rather than questioned and done away with.
Regressive attitudes towards girls and women will change only when they are nipped in the bud — when girls are allowed to make their own choices and govern their lives themselves without caring about what people will think; when instead of being saved for dowry money is spent on the daughters’ education and giving them happy, independent lives; when boys and girls are taught that they are equally capable; when sons are given lessons on equality and respect for girls; when children grow up to see their fathers and mothers as equals rather than the former ruling over the latter.
It is quite a complicated and daunting process to challenge and change traditional outlooks towards women but there is no other choice than to stand up to such regressive, misogynist and illogical norms and do away with them. For this, both men and women must share responsibility so that when a daughter is born, it isn’t hoped that it will be a son the next time.