On December 13, Prema was trudging up a deep mud path to her school in Talayya village in Allahabad district, when a man she knew accosted her and held her hand, asking her to be his mate. The 18-year-old beat him with her slipper and walked off, but Ajay Patel could not take no for an answer. He bought a small knife from the local bazaar, and hid it in the folds of wild grass along the deserted mud road. When she was returning home that afternoon, he stabbed her to death on the banks of the Tons river, a feeble tributary of the mighty Ganga.
Prema’s teacher at the Badrinath Tiwari Inter College, Vijender Tiwari, says Patel, the 22-year-old from the neighbouring village of Bandhwa, had stepped out of prison a few months ago after being caught for a robbery. He had been trying to make friends with her for a while but she, after a month of knowing him, refused to carry forward the friendship.
“I deprived myself of necessities so that I could educate my daughters. I fought my relatives and neighbours to educate Prema and make her something. Now where will I go? My daughter is gone. Who will bring her back?” her mother Lakshmi screams while relatives, neighbours and her husband stare into the distance. Being an 18-year-old, Prema’s friend Shalini Nisar says, feels something like being in a constant state of war. A student of Class XII, she and her friends have been barred from going to school after Prema was murdered. “We are too scared to take that path and the only other route by a neighbouring village has been closed to us because no one wants to risk letting unattended young girls through,” she says.
The girls are worried it will take at least half a year for things to go back to normal. That amounts to a year of studies lost. And, perhaps, many girls dropping out for good. Parents like Prema’s, who had vouched for the importance of educating daughters as a means of giving them a more secure future, are doubting their decision. According to the 2012-2013 Annual Health Survey of Uttar Pradesh, around 5.2 per cent of the female population of the state marries before turning 18. A whopping 32 per cent women between the ages of 20 and 24 at the time of the survey said they had married before they turned 18. Girls married between ages 10 and 19 in UP stand at 2 million as per Census data, the highest in absolute terms in the country.
For every 100 18-year-old boys in India, the number of girls of the same age is 86 — an abysmal number compared to the national sex ratio of 94 (Census 2011). Not only are there fewer girls, but patriarchal ideas of love and relationships leads often to a repressed sexuality and male aggression. “I know my limits and the rules of my home. If anyone in the village sees me with a male friend, talk will spread like wildfire and that will be the end of my freedom to step out of home and study,” Soni Yadav, 17, a student at a private school near Prema’s village says.
The boys in the neighbouring peri-urban settlements along the road to the city of Allahabad, roughly 50 km from Talayya, say they are equally wary of interacting with women at the risk of being perceived as sexual predators. “Our friendship with our female college mates is restricted only till college hours though we all have phones. One wrong move can mean jail time or a public beating at the hands of the girl and bystanders. So making a girlfriend is out of the question. I do not waste my time on things I know I do not have a chance at,” says Akash Kumar, a first-year student of computer application in a private college in the industrial town of Naini. But, Nisar says, there is relatively more freedom for girls in the cities because more women are seen in public life. The more visible women are, the safer public spaces become for them, she and her friends feel.
Megha Mishra, a first-year student studying law in Allahabad University says that in her campus, with a 50-50 ratio of male and female students, she and her friends are not only safer but freer and empowered. “The boys in our class are good friends and we have a healthy interaction amongst ourselves. We are equals. We girls are bold, we know the law and we know our rights and our male classmates also know the law and they are courteous towards us. Because there are more girls than boys, the security arrangements are also strong and the administration prompt.”<
In the town, one can also fall in love and carry it forward with the ease of access mobile phones afford, village elders and youth say. But the gender divide across rural and urban India only deepens when it comes to internet usage and access to smartphones.
International surveys like the Unicef’s recent report states that only 29 per cent or less than one-third of the mobile phone using and owning population in India is female. Social media giant Facebook’s 2016 report says only 24 per cent of Indians logged onto Facebook are women. “My father did not allow me to have a phone till I passed out of college because he feared it would give me too much freedom and I would get involved with boys. But my brother got it when he was only 18 because he said he needed the internet for his science studies,” Anju Mitra, a 25-year-old banker in Varanasi, says.
Mobile phones, even local women activists expound, should be kept away from girls because it puts them in more danger. Pushpa Goswami, the commander of the Belan Fauj, a women’s rights group agitating for security and justice for women in the backward drought-prone Bundelkhand says, “While parents send their daughters to study and give them phones for their security, the girls are doing their learning in some other field, you see. And the boys have all got corrupted because they have too much freedom. They trick innocent girls into sexual liaisons and then leave them in the lurch.”
The lack of friendship with the opposite sex leaves young boys shy, and almost invariably drives them into closed all-male groups or clans of friendship which encourages “patriarchal instincts and a sense of entitlement over their less visible and physically weaker and socially repressed female counterparts”, a senior police officer says.
Teachers and parents constantly try countering these ills by urging their wards to treat and “respect” the opposite sex as one’s sibling. This year saw the release of the Rajkummar Rao and Shruti Haasan starrer Behen Hogi Teri based on this very theme of frustration borne out of a socially engineered compulsion to view peers with a desexualised attitude in the Indian heartland.
Ganesh Pillai, a 19-year-old vendor in Varanasi, who puts up at the teeming Dashashwamedh Ghats, says he has friends who feel humiliated if a girl turns down their offer of friendship or proposal. “Girls have to think about hundreds of things like family and society before committing. But boys want an immediate ‘yes’ from them. That’s the source of tension,” feels 18-year-old Pillai, who has been pursuing a female friend from school for the last five years in vain.
He says of the boys he hangs around with, “If he is in a hurry to make a girlfriend and the girl says no, he has two mechanisms to cope: he threatens to hurt her or he threatens to hurt himself. If he has set eyes on a girl or if a girl speaks to him properly once or twice, even if only over the phone, he begins feeling entitled to her as if she were already his wife,” he says.
While young men are stuck in an endless cycle of socially-engineered segregation, the girls invariably always end up living in fear of the repercussions that advances of the opposite sex might have on their education. And life, in cases such as Prema’s. Police, women’s groups, Prema’s family and her friends and teachers all maintain that girls in the village or town never take their families into confidence about a sexual advance or instances of harassment “till the matter gets out of hand” and that is their “chief regret”.
But Prema’s friends say they cannot afford to confide in their parents or teachers because that would mean the end of school. “School turant bandh ho jayega agar yeh sab khabar ghar tak gayi toh. So we only confide in our female friends and teach each other to be strong and vocal when it comes to fighting back molesters and harassers, like Prema did,” Ashu Kumari, Prema’s 19-year-old neighbour, says.