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Where the state may not enter

Recently, a slew of measures to improve women’s conditions have been announced or promulgated — a bill against domestic violence, ...

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
September 28, 2005

Recently, a slew of measures to improve women’s conditions have been announced or promulgated — a bill against domestic violence, reform of property rights for Hindu women and, most recently, enabling measures for the girl child. All these are welcome and much-needed interventions to improve the lives of women. To the credit of the government, it zeroed in early to the declining numbers of girls evidenced in the 2001 census and set about creating measures to ameliorate the situation. As a result, we have seen a change in the attitude of the government in its ‘‘family planning’’ advertising and in several schemes introduced from time to time.

The latest scheme announced to encourage better treatment of girl children by their parents centers on educational benefits. Making connections between better educated girls and societal improvement is not new. Educated ‘‘wives’’ and ‘‘mothers’’ are supposed to work wonders for fertility rates, for health and hygiene, and for improving the quality of the nation’s human resources. The traditional focus was on ‘‘improved’’ children and ‘‘improved’’ homes (wise support for the husband and his career). Somewhere, it came to be recognised that women might need ‘‘capabilities’’ and empowerment for their own selves.

However, leaving the myopia of such policy thinking on women aside for the moment, let us focus on the formulation of the new educational scheme for the girl child. The scheme loudly announces that it is primarily for the ‘‘lone’’ or ‘‘only’’ girl child. It then moves on to make a concession to the second girl child, if she is present, by splitting the benefits 50-50. It is important to analyse two aspects: one, the messages this programme intends to send and will actually succeed in sending and two, what are the implications of the implementation of such a scheme.

It is very clear that in the government’s mind there is a link between the abysmal juvenile sex ratio and the need for changing the mindset of the average Indian family that continues to prefer boys over girls, irrespective of how much girls and women ‘‘prove’’ themselves as meriting equal love and care and equal life-chances. These policies also concede a very welcome recognition — that state policy has a role and place in nudging society along in the desired direction.

However, what the government does not recognise is that “engineering the family” is not a trivial matter and the possible social consequences of such interventionist policies should be thoroughly investigated before their launch. While not condoning girl child murder, the government should leave it to families to decide how many children they want, and of what sex.

The formulation of any scheme should begin with asking the question: what is the objective? The answer, in this case, could very well be: to enable the girl child to become a full-fledged participant in society. The answer should not be: to bring down the population of India, in addition to making sure that the sex ratio is redressed! Leave family planning to the family. Confusing too many goals leads to unclear thinking. Indeed, most literature on the fertility transition shows that large parts of the country have already transited to an acceptable total fertility replacement rate. The new scheme states that families with an only child who happens to be a girl will get educational benefits for that child for her entire education (some reports say from class 6 onwards, which raises the question of what happens before then and doesn’t it negatively affect those who never make it to class 6?). These benefits include fee exemption and scholarships. Scholarships for higher education in the humanities, social sciences and in professional education (engineering and medicine) will be based on merit, while targeting girls. These financial inducements are ostensibly supposed to achieve two things — one, a small family and two, a family with one or two girl children. Neither of these should be the objective of an education scheme.

Accepting that we need to do more for the girl child, why not give the benefits to girl children in any family, even if it has one boy or twenty? Why discriminate against girl children who are born into families in which boys have also been born? Could we seriously be interested in encouraging ‘‘reverse foeticide’’? Other negative implications could be ‘‘hiding’’ of other girl children or even boys to avail of the full benefits. The government should have learnt from its own experience of promulgating the two-child norm for candidates for panchayat elections. Children were concealed or not sent to school in order to achieve the coveted office. Many state governments are now in the process of withdrawing this requirement. Even the Chinese government recognises that its one-child policy has been disastrous in terms of the sex-ratio. Another question: should all girl children be helped or only some girl children? The policy appears to be saying — only single girl children or, okay, if the family has only two daughters (and no sons), let’s divide the benefits between the two of them. Suddenly, we create a divide between families with only one girl child, with only two girl children and those with a mixed bag. Families will have to run around to show certificates that they have the ‘‘ideal’’ family, as per government specifications, to avail of the benefits. What about the rich/poor divide? Will poor families have the information and the wherewithal to avail of these benefits? Do we have information on whether educated parents with small families are not educating their girl children? Are rural girls not sent to school for monetary or for other reasons? The policy does not appear to have sought clarity on several such issues, which is not difficult given detailed data available with the government.

Finally, do we seriously believe that the policy will make people plan small families of only girls? Of course not. But education for all girls, with assistance from the government, will lead to more girls becoming capable individuals, not in need of the crutch of dowry-demanding marriages. It will have the kind of serendipitous effects which will improve the value of girls and women. So, let us not muck up the scheme with gratuitous social engineering.

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