A 3-month-old girl died in a Bangalore hospital this week despite valiant attempts to save her life. She was a victim of a peculiar and especially cruel form of domestic violence: her own father had beaten her because she was a girl.
Her death has provoked understandable outrage across the country and her father now faces prosecution. There are also calls for bolstering the legal system to prevent such horrific child abuse. Sadly, this episode that has so seized the public imagination and produced such widespread indignation is merely the reflection of a much deeper malaise that afflicts large swaths of Indian society. Girls and women are simply not seen as equals. Gender discrimination, though hardly unknown in other parts of the world including in advanced industrial societies, remains especially acute in India. Obviously, social class matters. A girl in a well-educated and affluent family will have far better chances in life than one born to one with few resources. It’s also not surprising that women from well-to-do backgrounds have entered every realm of public office, and have also thrived in the corporate sector.
That said, the aggregate statistics that can be gleaned from the most recent census in 2011 are profoundly distressing. It shows that for children between the ages of birth and six years the ratio of girls to boys stands at 914 to 1000. In effect, millions of are girls are missing. They perished because of sex selection, because of malnutrition and because of neglect. Obviously, deep seated social mores that privilege male children are to blame.
India does have legislation that seeks to punish female feticide. However, as is well known, the enforcement of such a legal regime leaves much to be desired. Even if the existing laws were rigorously enforced, the plight of girls would still remain dire. They wouldn’t enjoy equal access to food, wouldn’t receive similar schooling and would also face other forms of discrimination.
Indeed, unless a spate of previous shocking incidents of neglect, abuse and violence – and especially this tragic occurrence – arouses the conscience of the country, then the goal of gender equality will remain a mere chimera in India.