“Congratulations! It’s a girl!” How one crusader helped change attitudes toward daughters in an Indian state
Young women in Haryana are proving themselves in male-centric sports like wrestling, winning on national and international platforms. They include Geeta Phogat, Vinesh Phogat, and Sakshi Malik, besides the pilot Priyanka; Miss World Manushi Chillar; gold medalist shooter Mannu Bhakar; and Khap Panchayat participant Ritu. These women, and many more, are defying social norms; and bring laurels to the state and the country.
“Beti hui hai (it’s a girl),” a nurse whispered fearfully, announcing the birth of my first child, a daughter. Despite her apprehensions, the day changed my life in the most significant way. It was 24 January 2012.
As a token of gratitude, I offered the bewildered nurse INR 2,000, requesting her to distribute sweets and inform people that a daughter was born into the sarpanch’s (village headman) family. She refused all but INR 100, saying that would have only accepted more if the baby were a boy. She also feared the doctor’s wrath if she took more for a girl child.
Woh kitabon mein darj tha hi nahi,
Jo padhaya sabak zamane ne
(Those lessons were never found in books,
that time has taught me)
- Poet unknown
The next day, I distributed sweets among government officials. Some congratulated me, assuming it was a boy because my sister Ritu had banged ‘thalis’ (metal plates) the night before – a tradition in Haryana villages to announce the birth of a boy. In contrast, the birth of a girl is announced six days later, with the ‘chatti ke geet’ ritual. Some of my colleagues were shocked to learn that I was celebrating the birth of a daughter.
The following year, while visiting a healthcare sub-centre in the area, I was dismayed to learn that male babies hugely outnumbered females. This discrepancy was not surprising given the preference for a son in the area, leading to the age-old practices of female foeticide and infanticide. Hindu religious philosophy considers women incarnations of the supreme goddess, and Islam upholds women’s rights. Still, if a girl child survives, our society discriminates against her throughout her life.
All citizens are equal under the Constitution of India, but women continue to struggle for their fundamental rights. The condition of women in a state, village, or family indicates the status of a country in terms of peace, happiness, and harmony.
Gender discrimination remains a severe problem in India. It leads to outcomes like female foeticide and infanticide, low women’s literacy, skewed sex ratio, high maternal mortality rate, et cetera, providing parameters of the state of women.
According to the 2011 Census, India has a sex ratio of 943 females to 1000 males. Haryana, Punjab, and Chandigarh have even lower sex ratios, 879, 895, and 818, respectively. Male literacy is 82.14% compared to female literacy, 65.46%.
We must end gender discrimination if society is to progress and achieve peace, harmony, and happiness in the family, community, country, and region.
My work, my mission
Abhi roshan hua jata hai raasta
Woh dekho ek aurat aa rahi hai
(The path is lighting up Look, a woman is walking on it)
- Shakeel Jamali
On 18 June 2012, the Bibipur gram panchayat (village council) announced an All-Women Gram Panchayat meeting to abolish the practice of female foeticide. We gathered over 250 women for the first time at the chaupal (village public space) and established a committee.
The committee, comprising three women and a man, was tasked with creating a list of those women who already had a daughter and were in their second month of pregnancy to make them aware of health issues.
I proposed that the khap panchayat (community of village elders) work on the issue of female foeticide and include women representatives in their deliberations. After initial resistance, they agreed.
Women were happy to be included in the decision-making but fearful of expressing their views. We overcame this hesitance by organised training on addressing meetings. The khap panchayat gained recognition across India, and we invited khap panchayats of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Around 130 khap panchayats attended the mega khap panchayat we organised on 14 July 2012. This consortium was an excellent platform for women of all ages. They condemned atrocities like female foeticide, domestic violence, women’s rights to property, and other issues.
‘We demand change’
Santosh Devi, 92, spoke about being married off at only 15 and being unlettered all her life. “We women have been bearing these discriminatory practices for a while now, and we have had enough of this nonsense,” she added. “We now demand change.”
The five-hour-long session concluded that Section 302 (punishment for murder) should apply to the offence of female foeticide. Resolute women returned to their villages to claim their rightful standing in their local khap panchayats. A decade later, Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code has been applied to infanticide but not foeticide.
We organised a gram sabha (village council) to abolish ‘honour’ killing and remove any individual or group known to be involved in this heinous crime. The Haryana Agriculture University, Hisar, organised a workshop on this topic, attended by a khap representative, gram panchayat representative, police, teachers, and students.
Unfortunately, most girls do not pursue higher education, and their education remains limited to Class 12. The gram panchayat unanimously decided to start a Beti Padhao (Educate Daughters) campaign to financially and morally support girls pursuing graduate studies. Haryana’s then chief minister Bhupendra Singh Hooda awarded our gram panchayat one crore (10 million) rupees on 15 July 2012, with half of the money set aside for rural development.
On 14 April 2013, the Haryana government honoured Bibipur gram panchayat for its work on gender sensitisation and gender equality. The Bibipur panchayat funds helped establish a Lado Pustakalaya (Library for Girls) at the village chaupal to help prepare for exams.
During the 2014 parliamentary elections, we worked on a gender sensitisation awareness campaign, “Bahu Do, Vote Lo” (Give us a bride, take our vote), to educate leaders about the scarcity of young women in the state. We created a group of Avivahit Purush Sangathan (Unmarried Men Group) across 16 locations in Haryana, highlighting their concern about the lack of young women of marriageable age to the local candidates.
We also wrote a letter to the prime ministerial candidate asking what they would do for women's empowerment and gender sensitisation. Moreover, to end bride trafficking (trafficking girls and young women for marriage), we worked to spread awareness about the importance of marriage registration.
In early 2015, while watching the song Selfie Le le Re from Salman Khan’s famous movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan, my daughter clicked a selfie with me, and I thought, why not begin a social-media campaign to empower daughters? The drive would help youth understand and empathise with the issue of gender equality.
On 9 June 2015, I launched the Selfie with Daughter campaign, giving an annual “Selfie with Daughter Award” for the best photograph. The incumbent president and the prime minister have praised this campaign umpteen times.
With selfies from across the globe coming in even a year after the campaign began, I set up www.selfiewithdaughter.world, an online museum with over a million participants.
Gharon ke naam the, naamo ke saath aude the
Bahut talaash kiya, koi insaan na mila.
(The houses bore names, and those names had designations;
I searched and searched but failed to find a human soul)
- Bashir Badr
We broke with tradition in multiple ways. These include:
Nameplates based on daughter’s name: We got villagers to display nameplates bearing daughters’ names on each house, countering the custom of embossing the male Gotra (lineage) names on the nameplates. We have succeeded in replacing 17,000 nameplates over eight years.
Women's empowerment and village development: In 2016, we consolidated Bibipur Model of Women’s Empowerment and Village Development and adopted two villages, Tadola in Dhatasth District, Jind and Udana in District Karnal, to work on women’s empowerment. Our efforts paid off when the sex ratio improved, and women’s respect increased as they became aware of their rights. The government dispensed funds for a library and a computer centre.
SmarTgram initiative: The then President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, adopted five villages in July 2016 to initiate, support, and execute projects for holistic development. This project led to the concept of SmarTgram (a ‘smart village’ that has basic infrastructure and a layer of smart information and communication to improve governance and delivery of services, livelihood, and economic opportunities), which was later extended to a hundred villages in Haryana. We incorporated the “Bibipur Model of Women’s Empowerment and Village Development” into the initiative.
The Pranab Mukherjee Foundation conducts outreach programmes across 103 adopted villages to spread awareness against child marriage, female foeticide, and the veil system.
Young women in Haryana are proving themselves in male-centric sports like wrestling, winning on national and international platforms. They include Geeta Phogat, Vinesh Phogat, and Sakshi Malik, besides the pilot Priyanka; Miss World Manushi Chillar; gold medalist shooter Mannu Bhakar; and khap panchayat participant Ritu. These women, and many more, are defying social norms; and bring laurels to the state and the country.
All this work over the past decade shows that mainstreaming women's empowerment and sensitising men can help end gender discrimination. This will enable women to live and work as equal citizens, benefiting society.
(The author is a former sarpanch (village headman) of Bibipur village, Jind, Haryana. He is the founder of the Selfie With Daughter Campaign and Foundation, and an advisor to Pranab Mukherjee Foundation. This piece is adapted from his article originally published in the SelfieWithDaughter.org blog. By special arrangement with Sapan)
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