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India Cutting Out Sugar And Spice

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
June 1, 2011

Cutting Out Sugar and Spice


NEW DELHI — While I was pregnant, we moved from one area to another within New Delhi. After having my baby, I went back to visit my old neighborhood.

As I was pushing the stroller up the driveway, my erstwhile upstairs neighbor waved to me from her balcony. She was a sweet old lady who lived with her daughter. I used to sometimes stop in and have tea with her.

“Is it a boy or girl?” she asked excitedly.

“A girl,” I shouted back, expecting coos and an “isn’t-that-sweet.” I wasn’t prepared for her response.

“Oh well, don’t worry, you can have another one.”

In India, ancient tales and old sayings reveal a deeply engrained preference for boys over girls. The attitude that girls are inferior to boys has soaked in over the centuries.

Even today, a young bride is often given the blessing, “May you be the mother of a 100 sons.”

When my daughter was a toddler, my mother-in-law used to lovingly coax her to eat all of her food by saying, “If you eat the last bite, you’ll be the mother of a king.” That is, until the day my daughter said, “But I don’t want to be the mother of a king; I want to be the king.”

And during my own childhood, I remember on several occasions women pityingly telling my mother, in front of me and my sister, “Oh, you only have two daughters. Not even one son.”

Traditionally, girls are thought of as a liability — financially, emotionally and spiritually. A girl’s parents need to pay a dowry to get her married. Once married, the girl is considered part of the boy’s family, not her own, so whatever her parents have invested in her is considered a sunk cost. Her allegiance is now solely to the family she has married into. Even if she is ill-treated by her in-laws, it’s all-too-often considered shameful for her to return to her own family.
What enables and perpetuates these attitudes?

Part of it may be due to an unquestioning respect for tradition, patriarchy and the elderly. Part of it may be the extended-family system.

The bride, often as a young girl, enters a fully-formed household, with revered elders and vested interests to conserve. She is one against many, an outsider against a consolidated group — until she conforms, or better yet, has a son.

Part of it may be the traditional and highly-effective socialization of women themselves. As women become older, have sons, and their sons get married and bring home wives, the older women gain more prestige and power — something they won’t give up easily.

Naturally, these attitudes are also reflected in more concrete metrics. According to the 2011 census, India’s Child Sex Ratio (covering children birth to 6 years of age) is 914 — meaning 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. This is not only a reduction from the 2001 figure of 927, but it is said to be the worst since independence.

A recent study by Prabhat Jha of the University of Toronto shows that when a first born is a girl, the C.S.R. for second born children is 836. And interestingly, for the richest 20 percent of families, this value is 750, while in families in which the mother has more than 10 years of education, 700. It seems that neither affluence nor education are obvious solutions.

Because we travel often, my daughter has several points of reference to compare and contrast. During middle school, she asked several times why there are so few women on the streets here. In the area of New Delhi where we live, it would not be exaggerating to say that more than 80 percent of the pedestrians are men. Many feel free to stare at a woman, and even make rude comments. Women avoid eye-contact and go quickly on their way.

For her independent study project, my now-teenage daughter decided to look into female infanticide. What she found upset her: “I never knew until now that girls are considered to be less than boys,” she said.

There’s no advantage to being a girl in India, and yet, at the very least, they are needed as sexual partners, wives and mothers. But right now, instead of a real change in these traditional views, we are witnessing more cases of gang rape, men marrying younger women and importing brides, and women being pressured to work as sex workers.

In the coming-of-age movie “Gigi,” the charming cad Honoré Lachaille sings the song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and asks hypothetically “Without them, what would little boys do?”

Unfortunately, with the decrease in female births, we are about to find out.

Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and business/academic editor.

source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/02/opinion/02iht-edmohanty02.html?_r=1&ref=global


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