Friday, March 02, 2012

India: India’s Girl Child Struggles to Survive

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

India’s Girl Child Struggles to Survive

By Sujoy Dhar

NEW DELHI, Mar 1, 2012 (IPS) - At the intensive care unit of the state-run All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) hospital in New Delhi, a two-year-old battered baby girl is fighting to survive.

The doctors attending to her have waged a six-week battle to keep her alive, but they are quickly losing hope that she will ever live a normal life after the torture she endured at such a tender age.

When she was first brought to the hospital by a 15-year-old sexual abuse victim, Baby Falak was almost dead and covered in bite marks, apparently inflicted by the young girl who brought her in.

In medical terms, Falak is suffering from battered baby syndrome, in which an infant sustains injuries as a result of physical abuse, usually inflicted by an adult caregiver.

Internal injuries, cuts, burns, bruises and broken or fractured bones are all possible signs of battered child syndrome and Baby Falak has suffered it all.

As her story unfolded and a harsh media spotlight prompted an in-depth investigation, it transpired that the baby had changed several hands to end up with the 15-year-old who is herself a sexual abuse victim of the man with whom she eloped to escape an abusive father

In anger and frustration, the teenager beat up the infant quite brutally before dropping her off at the hospital.

While the police hunted for the baby’s birthmother Munni, who had been separated from her children, they stumbled upon a sordid story of India’s treatment of its girl children.

Though India’s electronic media hijacked Baby Falak’s story to highlight the plight of the girl child, social workers say she is but one of countless infants who suffer similar trauma and whose stories almost always go unreported.

In the first two months of 2012 alone, four baby girls between the ages of two days and six months were found abandoned on trains and roads across Indian cities like Bhopal and Asansol.

Meanwhile, activists also claim that while newborn girls live an insecure life and fall prey to atrocities, countless girls in India are eliminated even before they see the light of this world.

"According to the 2011 Census and other national statistics 700,000 girl children are missing at birth (due to termination of pregnancy once a foetus’ sex is confirmed) and experts say this may reach the 1 million mark in this decade if serious effort is not made to reverse or halt it," Akhila Sivadas, executive director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research (CAR) told IPS.

Sivadas’ remarks come in the wake of a new United Nations study indicating that India is the world’s most dangerous place for girl children.

"Sex Differentials in Childhood Mortality," a project of the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), reveals that a girl aged between one and five years is 75 percent more likely to die than a boy in India, marking the world’s most extreme gender disparity in child mortality.

Global infant and child mortality rates have been on the decline in recent years, with a large portion of the world seeing young girls experiencing higher rates of survival than young boys; but India remains the exception to this positive trend.

"The issue of gender discrimination and precarious survival of girls where there is (already) prevalence of foeticide is a matter of grave concern and requires urgent action," said Shantha Sinha, chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) in India.

According to Sivadas, the number of girls missing at birth can be attributed to the advent of ultrasound technology that has made it possible for even rural women to determine their child’s sex before birth.

She said that new technology must be regulated, or else it will become a double-edged sword.

Activists also say that Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) is being used to conceive male children now.

Sivadas claims that all these technologies first became available to the "educated" class between 1991 and 2001 in the rich of Punjab and Haryana states, resulting in the queer phenomenon of higher female mortality rates or less girl children altogether.

Now that the technology is freely available, its effects are much more widespread.

"There is a deep seated ‘son preference’ in this country; (thus) we are directly paying the price of development as technology makes it possible to eliminate the unborn girl child," Sivadas stressed.

"And even when the child is born she is subjected to early neglect. Neonatal child mortality is also linked with the problem of malnutrition. All forces combine to create life precariousness," she added.

She believes that the dismantling of India’s public distribution system (PDS), through which essential food items were made available to poorer families at subsidised rates, is an important factor in the crisis, since parents who cannot feed their children often grow desperate.

"If we can at least prevent (sex-selective abortions), the way (they were stopped) in the Northern states of Haryana and Punjab, at least the girl child has a fighting chance when she is out in this world," Sivadas said.

But while the number of sex-selective abortions is a grave phenomenon, Baby Falak is a reminder of the other side of the coin: the plight that awaits a newborn girl in a society that does not welcome her, or objectifies her.

"The Falak incident reminds us of the need to expand and deepen the presence of institutions that are meant to offer protection to children. This includes a secure family," Sinha told IPS.

She added that Falak’s story, which has aroused the national conscience, has reminded the nation of the inadequacy of the reach of the system in safeguarding the most vulnerable populations.

"There is a lot that has to be done. We need greater cooperation between the police, the child welfare committee (CWC), health ministries and the media if we want to protect every child who is left abandoned and uncared for," she said.

"Unless there is a sincere endeavour based on the non-negotiable principle that children should enjoy all their rights, it will be difficult to reach out to them," she added.

According to Sivadas, India now needs a response similar to the one instituted back in the 1960s in the Southern state of Tamil Nadu.

"In Tamil Nadu a basket of change was brought in for health, nutrition and childcare, with good results. We need that today," she stressed.