Anganwadi worker Sumitra Charan recalls a day in the early 2000s, when she was surprised to hear curses and lament, instead of seeing happiness and laughter, in a home where a child had just been born.
In that house in Rajasthan’s Nagaur district, a grandmother was on that day bitterly regretting the birth of her fourth granddaughter.
“It hurt me immensely that instead of celebrating the birth of a child, they were grieving only because it was a girl. But something like that no longer happens today. And we, people who work on the ground, know the immense significance of this change,” Charan says.
It is the job of the 37-year-old to keep track of newborns in her area. Charan herself is the mother of a daughter.
Focus on girls’ development
The Ministry of Women and Child Development notes that the trend of decline in the Child Sex Ratio (CSR), defined as number of girls per 1,000 boys between the ages of 0 and 6, has been unabated since 1961. The Ministry acknowledges that the decline in the CSR is a major indicator of disempowerment of women. CSR reflects pre-birth discrimination manifested through gender-biased sex selection, and post-birth discrimination against girls. The central government has announced the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme with the overall goal of celebrating the girl child and enabling her education. The declared objectives of this initiative are: Prevention of gender-biased sex selective elimination, Ensuring survival and protection of the girl child n Ensuring education and participation of the girl child
Within a year of the launch of the central government’s flagship Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (BBBP) scheme, Nagaur has become one of the country’s 10 best performing districts in the awareness generation and outreach activities category under the scheme. These districts are being felicitated by the central government.
For the Saathins, workers and supervisors, mostly women from rural households, who are a part of the long chain of 2,715 Anganwadi centres across the district overseen by the state’s Women and Child Development department, this feat has come as a validation of their work, which they often have to do under difficult circumstances.
Fifty-three-year-old Rukmani Choudhary and a handful of other women make their way down the alleys of ward number 4 in Nagaur’s Sanjay Colony, playing dhols and utensils, to a home where a girl has been born recently.
“There was a time when the residents would get irritated when we celebrated the birth of a girl. But we persisted, and insisted on meeting pregnant women to ensure they were not being misled by their families. Initiatives such as the ‘Chuppi Todo Abhiyaan’ (Break the Silence) helped us to spread awareness about menstrual hygiene,” says Choudhary.
Another initiative that has contributed towards building the new narrative is the celebration of the birth of girl children by the district administration.
“Whenever we get information from primary and community health centres about girls being born, the occasion is celebrated by the district administration. Women who have chosen to undergo sterilisation after giving birth to one or two girls are also felicitated in public programmes. This has helped a lot towards changing the conception of people,” says Nagaur district collector Dinesh Kumar Yadav.
He added that ‘Ratri Chaupals’ (night public hearings) are organised regularly and competitions and interactions are held to bring issues of women to the forefront. The first subject discussed in the public hearing is Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, he said.
Around 60 km from the district headquarters of Nagaur is Badi Khatu village. A resident, 26-year-old Chanda Sain, says that being honoured by the district administration for being the mother of a daughter, made her feel proud.
“It was a great feeling to be honoured by the officials. I have a son and a daughter but I will never discriminate between the two. I was called on the stage and presented a shawl, which has led to my family seeing me in a new light now,” she says.
According to Ashok Goel, deputy director, Women and Child Development department, Nagaur, the initiatives have resulted in the increase in the child sex ratio for the district, which he says improved from 897 in 2011 to the present figure if 965 girls to 1,000 boys.
Some of the challenges that the district administration faced while introducing the measures included the limited independence of women representatives such as Sarpanch.
“In many instances, it was seen that male relatives of a woman Sarpanch such as her husband or brother would do all the work and interaction on her behalf. We changed this by organising the ‘Coffee with Collector’ event wherein all women Sarpanches of the district were invited, and we insisted that the Sarpanch Pati (husband of sarpanch) or other male relatives were not included in the interaction,” says district collector Yadav.
Sunita Khatik, Sarpanch of Gram Panchayat Jayal, who had attended the event, says that it is important that elected women panchayat leaders should be independent.
“I have always acted independently and ever since I was elected Sarpanch back in 2015, I noticed that due to my direct interaction with people, more women have come up and confided in me about their issues. This wouldn’t have been possible if a male relative had been handling things on my behalf. I started distributing congratulatory certificates after the birth of every girl since 2016 and have also emphasised on issuance of land pattas in the name of women of the family,” says Khatik, 27, who has a bachelor’s degree in science.