Bibipur has a curious entry gate. ‘The Women’s World’, it says in the Hindi alphabet, as it leads you to a cobbled pathway called ‘Lado Marg’, which translates into ‘girl road’. The small, but prosperous, village of 6,000 in Haryana’s Jind district is awash with symbolism dedicated to women and girls — a small patch of land with a board that says ‘Mahila Chabutra’, where groups of women can hang out; a pond called ‘Lado Sarovar’ dedicated to girls; and ‘Mahila Shakti Sthal’, a flight of steps where women can sit and discuss social issues affecting the village.
It was only a matter of time before the nation would learn of Bibipur’s visible championing of women. Last week, when its gram panchayat organised a Beti Bachao Selfie Banao contest — inviting men in the village to send selfies clicked with their daughters — the news went viral, with 794 images, some “from as far as Gujarat and MP”, making it to the contest.
But lift the veil of such symbolism and Bibipur reveals a sorry sex ratio — 867 women for 1,000 men, according to the 2011 Census, even lower than Haryana’s figure of 879.
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“But that will change over the next generation,” asserts Sunil Jaglan, the 33-year-old sarpanch of the village.
As per the Haryana Health Department, the sex ratio in the 0-6 age group in the village rose from 569:1,000 in 2012 to 1,117:1,000 in 2013. In 2014, there were an equal number of boys and girls in the 0-6 age group in Bibipur.
It all began on January 24, 2012, when two nurses informed Jaglan, who was elected sarpanch a year earlier, that his wife had given birth to a daughter. He had offered to tip the nurses, but they had refused to take it, saying “they would have taken it if it was a boy”. “The birth of my daughter was an eye-opener,” says Jaglan, an MSc in Math.
In June that year, he called a meeting of the 14-member panchayat, which includes five women, to take “bold steps to change attitudes towards the girl child”. A group of “educated” women from the village was tasked with going home to home and counselling pregnant women against illegal sex determination. Most families were hostile, remembers Bani Singh, a panch.
In July 2012, a khap mahapanchayat was organised to raise the issue of female foeticide and women — for the first time — were asked to voice their opinion. “Women in these parts generally do not attend such meetings or are mute spectators, but we goaded them to speak up,” says Singh. Young mothers had then spoken about how they were forced to go for sex determination, elderly mothers on their desperate wait for a daughter-in-law (the low sex ratio had meant that many men remained single). At the end of the meeting, the village passed a resolution that said murder charges would be slapped against any parent who encouraged the termination of a female foetus.
After the “overwhelming response” at the mahapanchayat, the door-to-door drive went full throttle, and illiterate women also joined the fray. “We told families that a girl ensures the welfare of two homes — that of her parents and her in-laws. If the girls are killed, who will the boys marry?,” says Ompati, an illiterate woman panch.
Two years ago, with “attitudes having changed significantly”, the door-to-door campaign was wound up and a “secret committee” set up. This committee, says Jai Bhagwan, a village elder, “acts like a CID”. “The members — a few elderly women — mingle with other families in the area. If they get to know that a pregnant women is planning to go for sex determination, they alert the sarpanch. The families are then counselled,” he says.
In a first, a girl from the village got into IIT. Ekta Goyat, an MSc in Physics who enrolled for a PhD programme at IIT Delhi this year, says, “Parents here now want to send their girls to college. Earlier, they would think it’s a waste of money.”
Ekta’s father Ishwar Goyat, a retired teacher, says the change has cut across women of all ages and social strata. “Earlier, the women did not speak in public. Now, I see even illiterate women deliver speeches at functions,” he says. Women have composed songs that campaign against female foeticide.
The school dropout rate among girls, claims sarpanch Jaglan, is “now nil” — a massive improvement from “the situation four years ago when 40 per cent of girls in Class X would not make it to Class XII”. Many girls, he adds, now take a bus to Jind town, 10 km away, to pursue higher education.
Jagwanti, another village resident, has now “mustered the courage” to educate her three young daughters. She gave birth to six girls, each time hoping her next baby would be a boy. The first three studied till Class XII, after which they were married off. “We used to feel that some untoward incident might happen with them, so it is better that girls are married off as early as possible. Everyone has now convinced me that my daughters should be allowed to study as much as they want. One of my daughters wants to become a police officer,” she says.
In August 2012, the panchayat introduced another tradition. Instead of the sarpanch hoisting the tricolour on Independence Day and Republic Day, the honour is given to a mother with a single girl child. Like in the selfie contest, here too, people from outside the village are open to “apply”.
Grandparents have not been left out of the change in Bibipur, and are the target of a programme called Dadi agar chahegi, toh poti zaroor aayegi. Birmati, who is in her 60s, says, “When we were young, there was no way to know the sex of the foetus, so it wasn’t so bad. We celebrated when my son was blessed with a daughter. She has her summer vacations and is visiting her maternal grandparents. I miss her,” she says.