NEW DELHI: The birth of a girl, so goes a popular Hindu saying, is akin to the arrival of Lakshmi —the four-armed goddess of wealth, often depicted holding lotus flowers and an overflowing pot of gold.
That should assure pride of place for women in Indian society, especially now the country is growing both in global influence and affluence.
In reality, India’s women are discriminated against, abused and even killed on a scale unparalleled in the top 19 economies of the world, according to a new poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The survey, polling 370 gender specialists, found Canada to be the best place to be a woman amongst G20 nations, excluding the European Union economic grouping. Saudi Arabia was the second worst, after India.
“As a child, she faces abuse, rape and early marriage and even when she marries, she is killed for dowry. If she survives all of this, as a widow she is discriminated against and given no rights over inheritance or property.”
Age-old customs such as payment of hefty dowries at the time of marriage and beliefs linking a female’s sexual behaviour to family honour have made girls seem a burden.
The poll results - based on parameters such as quality of health services, threat of physical and sexual violence, level of political voice, and access to property and land rights - jars with the modern-day image of India.
India had a female prime minister, or head of government, as long ago as 1966. Well-dressed women in Western attire driving scooters or cars to work is now an everyday sight in cities. Women doctors, lawyers, police officers and bureaucrats are common. But scratch under the surface and the threats in India are manifold — from female foeticide, child marriage, dowry and honour killings to discrimination in health and education and
crimes such as rape, domestic violence and human trafficking.
Indeed, a girl’s fight for survival begins in the womb due to an overwhelming desire for sons and fear of dowry, which has resulted in 12 million girls being aborted over the last three decades, according to a 2011 study by The Lancet.
This has led to a decline in the number of women in proportion to men in many areas, resulting in a rise in rapes, human trafficking and, in certain cases, practices such as
“wife-sharing” amongst brothers.
The curse of dowry continues even after marriage. One bride was murdered every hour over dowry demands in 2010, says the National Crime Records Bureau. Some are “stove burnings” where in-laws pour kerosene, the commonly-used cooking fuel of poorer homes, over women and set them alight, making it appear accidental.
Experts say child marriage remains among the biggest hurdles to women’s development in India and has a domino effect. Almost 45 percent of Indian girls are married before they turn 18, says the International Center for Research on Women.
A child bride will drop out of school and is more likely to have complications during child birth. One in five Indian women, many child mothers, die during pregnancy or child birth, the United Nations says. Their babies, if they survive, are more likely to be
underweight and suffer stunting due to poor nourishment.
Indian authorities have also struggled to combat rising crimes against women, including domestic violence, molestation, trafficking and rape. Newspaper reports are full of stories of trafficking and sexual exploitation.
In many cases, violence against women has a level of social acceptability. A government survey found 51 per cent of Indian men and 54 percent of women justified wife beating.
India has robust gender laws, but they are hardly enforced, partly because a feudal mindset is as prevalent among bureaucrats, magistrates and the police as it is elsewhere.