The world today faces the grim reality of millions of girls being subjected to harmful practices such as child marriage, gender-biased sex selection and female genital mutilation (FGM). Hundreds of millions of adult women continue to live with the consequences – life-long pain and ill health, blighted opportunities, and crushed dreams – even as the world begins a decade of action for the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs include a specific target (target 5.3) on the elimination of all harmful practices — explicitly mentioning child, early and forced marriage and FGM. This builds on previous UN conferences at Vienna, Cairo and Beijing in the 1990s that affirmed this by consensus, as well as the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979).
Despite all these declarations, why do such harmful practices persist in so many countries, including India?
The UNFPA’s 2020, ‘State of World Population Report’, titled ‘Against My Will – Defying The Practices That Harm Women And Girls And Undermine Equality’ goes in-depth into the reasons. From a long list of 19 different harmful practices including dowry-related violence, witchcraft accusations and crimes in the name of honour, it focuses on the scale and magnitude of three — child marriage, gender-biased sex selection and FGM. Of these, as we know, child marriage and gender-biased sex selection are widely prevalent in India. They continue to be practised despite laws to counter them. FGM is also prevalent in India and is a concern but its practice is limited to a few pockets in the country.
The prevalence of child marriage has indeed fallen over time. Today, only 27 per cent of girls in India marry before they turn 18, compared to 47 per cent, 10 years ago. But the absolute numbers are huge. With 12 million child marriages globally each year, around 650 million girls and women alive today were married as children. Son preference and gender-biased sex selection have resulted, over the past 50 years, in doubling the number of missing women across the world to over 142 million – 46 million of them are from India.
What drives these harmful practices? It is often assumed that old traditions shrouded in the mists of time are the reason. But as the report points out, at least some of these practices are far from old. Traditions that reinforce gender inequality and women’s subordination are often freshly minted and then justified and rationalised in the name of culture, tradition or religion, and usually as being in the girl’s own interest. Families may genuinely believe that marrying their daughter early will be in her best interest, but this rationalisation is based on a belief that marriage is the only viable life-option for girls. The UNFPA report brings a fresh perspective to our understanding of harmful practices, squarely pinning the blame not on traditions but on the root cause — gender inequality and the subordination of women.
Focusing on girls’ and women’s human rights, the report provides compelling evidence of how these practices lead to egregious violations denying equality, non-discrimination, personal security and autonomy in decision making — the core aspects of human rights. FGM represses and violates the expression of female sexuality. Instead of being linked to the human experience of positive communication and pleasure, it becomes connected to violence, lifelong pain and health problems. Child, early and forced marriage diminishes and does away with girls’ possibilities for education and autonomy in critical life choices. Son preference reinforces and assigns a higher social status to men and boys and is an expression of severe gender-based discrimination. The Report indicates that the failure to include a human rights approach in legal action will mean “risk of non-enforcement, community rejection and clandestine practice”.
While formal laws banning such practices may be needed, they are far from sufficient. Many harmful practices persist despite laws. The government needs to go beyond passing and enforcing laws, to tackling the root cause of harmful practices, namely gender-based subordination and inequality. How? The Report highlights investment in community awareness, public education and interventions that ensure equality between women and men in areas ranging from property inheritance and land rights to political participation, paid employment, and pensions.
It is also very important to ensure that a new law to tackle one problem does not violate other rights. For example, in considering laws related to child marriage, it is important to ensure that they do not compromise young people’s access to sexual and reproductive health services. Nor should they criminalise sexual behaviour among adolescents and youth. A recent study by Partners for Law in Development on Why Girls Run Away to Marry cautions against the use of punitive legal measures that increase the vulnerabilities of adolescents and young people. Instead, it recommends the use of counselling, sexual and reproductive health education, awareness about rights and entitlements, and skill-building and vocational education for young girls and boys. This is particularly relevant for India today, as the government considers the idea of raising the minimum legal age at marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years. Similarly, the law to prohibit sex selection should be implemented in a manner that does not prevent women’s access to safe and legal abortion.
Despite its grim numbers and graphic imagery, the SOWP Report carries a message of hope and the possibility of transformative change through effective policies on the one hand, and individual and community actions on the other.
A story close to home – cited in the report — is that of Jasbeer’s Kaur’s grit and determination in raising her three daughters as a single mother. Jasbeer stood her ground against family pressure, her maternal family stood by her, and she was financially independent, working as an ANM — even though the job paid barely enough to support her family. Eventually, Jasbeer’s resolve broke the resistance in her neighbourhood to “daughter-only” families.
The example of the Republic of Korea provides insight into what is required at the policy level, and the power of collective action to change a biased sex ratio. Widespread son preference had led by 1994 to a sex ratio at birth of only 867 girls for every 1,000 boys in Korea. The government introduced dramatic reforms through the 1990s, including granting inheritance rights to women, tackling discrimination in employment, addressing domestic violence, and enabling women to serve as the head of the household. This was made possible by an active women’s rights movement and a responsive government. As a result of these actions, the sex ratios at birth in the country have reverted to natural levels today.
(The author is a professor and director of the Ramalingaswami Centre on Equity and Social Determinants of Health, Public Health Foundation of India. Views are personal)
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