Just imagine what would happen if your daughter was standing there. What would you do, how would you fight? So you have to join hands, you have to take each child as your daughter. Soon you will feel their sorrow and then you will feel the strength that comes out of you to protect them.” -Anuradha Koirala

24th January is observed as National Girl Child Day in India for several reasons. For decades, this particular day indeed meant to remind us that we had a long way to go as a country with regards to protecting, fostering and empowering girl children. However, the day has finally come to celebrate this day as a success.

India’s overall sex ratio, women per thousand men, is finally comparable to that of developed countries. We can now see that there are 1020 women for every 1,000 men in India. The fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS) has also discovered that the sex ratio fares better in rural areas than urban ones. The NFHS 2019-2021 reflects India’s significant strides in the past five years. We are no longer experiencing a population boom, which indicates the significant societal shifts our country is going through.

A rural versus urban analysis already showed that the sex ratio is currently skewed towards males in the rural areas of 14 states and the urban regions of 22 states.

Amitabh Kundu, a Research Advisor from Oxfam, said, “It has been observed that the female-male ratio is better in the backward states and their respective districts as medical facilities are yet to become easily available. In the districts where these are available, sex determination goes up, and sex ratio declines.”

The states that have had the most marked improvement include Lakshadweep and Delhi. Lakshadweep’s sex ratio went to 1,187 from 1,022. Whereas the sex ratio for Delhi increased by 59, skewed towards women in this period.

The Country of Missing Women is Changing:

India has been called “a country of missing women” for the longest time. This phrase was coined by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in 1990. That was a low moment in India’s history when the gender ratio was at rock bottom (927 women for every 1,000 men). That meant there were 37 million missing women.

India came from a place where sons were preferred because it was further believed that a male child alone could carry forward the family legacy. Sons could take care of their parents in old age, while daughters required dowry and would move to their marital homes. This anti-girl bias paired with easy accessibility to antenatal sex screening from the 1970s encouraged tens of millions of female foetuses to be eliminated through sex-selective abortions. Female foeticide was the most significant contributor to the skewed sex ratio.

However, things took a turn in 1994, when the Pre-Natal Determination Test (PNDT) Act banned sex-selective abortions. In 2002, the Act had been amended to include gender selection beginning at the pre-conception stage.

So naturally, these new numbers have made all the headlines in India. It undoubtedly means a significant societal shift in our country, from having a preference for sons to actually educating their daughters. The Health Ministry of India has stated that this is the first time that the female population in India has surpassed its male population. Perhaps we can attribute some of this success to the measures taken by the government for women empowerment in India.

This new success reflects the strides being made in tackling sex-selective abortions, female infanticide foeticide and neglect of the girl child.

New Strides in the Right Direction:

The Executive Director of the Population Foundation of India, Poonam Muttreja mentioned, “It is indeed heartening to witness the extensive improvements in the overall sex ratio. It reflects the positive strides that the country has made towards gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

She further added, “With greater access to literacy and giving education a priority, the aspirations of women are already changing fast. Girls are now asserting themselves besides taking charge of their lives, and are eager to play a critical role in the growth and development of the country in the future in their own capacity.”

In terms of India’s population, there is no predicted fall in the population any time soon. India currently has the second-largest population globally and will remain for the next 30-40 years. It is because more than 30% of our population are between the ages of 10 and 30 and will most likely have children over the next two decades.

The Factors That Led to a Better Sex Ratio:

Literacy and Internet Access Amongst Women

Currently, Indian women between the ages of 15 and 49 still need to catch up in literacy. This gap is more significant in rural India. This gap is also reflected in the digital divide.

Compared to men, very few women have used the Internet in India. However, if we compare this to data from 2015-16, we can see that more women feel more empowered to make important household decisions.

Financial Independence

The proven fact is that a maximum number of women have been reporting that they have independent bank accounts today. More of them now actively participate in household decisions that they couldn’t contribute to before (during the previous round of the NFHS survey). The survey states that well-implemented policies could further improve conditions for women in India. We now require a stronger focus on schooling.

On this note, an empowering scheme which redefined the financial independence of women in India is Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, a financial inclusion program by the Central Government to enable citizens to affordably access financial services such as bank accounts, insurance and pensions. As per the Finance Department Of India, out of 44 crore Jan Dhan bank account holders in the country, more than 55% are women account holders which is approximately 24.42 crore beneficiaries. Same report also shows 32% female Jan Dhan customers engaged more with the savings scheme (vs. 25% of men). These women grew their balances by 36% during the 5 month project period.

Affirmative Action for Women & Girls in India:

If the government continues to make great strides for its female population, we can also improve the economy of the nation to the bigger framework. These policy initiatives will empower women and thus their active roles will positively contribute to the economy. We cannot allow gender disparities to harm the progress of the country.

Several policy changes have had remarkable results in India. One such example is the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ scheme introduced by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, India to generate awareness and improve the efficiency of welfare services intended for girls in India.

Another example is a unique policy experiment conducted in village-level governance that mandated one-third representation for women in the local leadership positions that is already creating a new resurgence in the country. This experiment has had encouraging results. There are analyses of this affirmative action policy that have demonstrated how villages led by women allow for the preferences of female residents to be better represented.

Women in these areas also felt much more confident in reporting crimes that they were earlier too scared to report. The stigma of such crimes dropped. Women leaders are essential as they serve as role models for other girls and young women. They help raise the standard of educational and career aspirations for these girls.

Behaviour studies have highlighted a backlash by men in the short run to their traditional gender roles being challenged. However, these negative stereotypes generally dissipate and disappear. This change highlights how important it is to have consistent, affirmative action for reducing gender bias.

Another policy change geared towards equalising land inheritance rights between sons and daughters has received a mixed response. On the one hand, it contributed towards an increase in educational attainment and the age at marriage for daughters. Conversely, it led to increased marital conflict and domestic violence.

There are now marked improvements in the labour market. Women are more empowered as they have more prospects in their careers. One particular randomisation study discovered that when a job recruiter visited villages to offer information to young women, these women increased labour market participation. They even showed increased enrolment in professional training.

These policy changes have been vital in increasing the age at marriage and childbearing, a drop in the number of children born to a family, and most importantly, an increase in the enrolment of younger girls in schools, marking the dawn of girls empowerment.

On the same note, the central government in December 2021, tabled a draft legislation in the Lok Sabha that seeks to raise the legal age for marriage of women from 18 to 21 years, at par with men. The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which seeks to raise the age of legal marriage for women from 18 to 21, will apply to all communities in the country and, once enacted.

The other government & NGO policies include:

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention Prohibition And Redressal) Act 2013 which directs the constitution of  Local Complaints Committee (LCC) in every district.

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), 2005 involves the appointment of Protection Officers (PO) preferably women.

The Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 ensures the appointment of Dowry Prohibition Officers by the state government.

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 ensures the effectual functioning of child marriage prohibition officers by the state government.

NGO Initiatives & Program Bengaluru For Women’s Safety Awareness Campaign :

Parihar Charitable Trust, under the initiative of Bangalore City Police, is meticulously working on issues related to women, children and families for the past 25 years. A team of professional counsellors, trained volunteers, and police staff plays a vital role by lending a listening ear and imparting good counselling to women, children, and their families in dealing with disputes like marital discord, relationship conflicts, and other domestic issues.

Suraksha App, Bengaluru Police’s Suraksha App is an SOS app for women in distress which turns the smartphones into a discreet personal safety device for use during emergencies. A call of service to police can be triggered by simply activating the SOS button like icon on your cell phone.

Vanitha Sahayavani is a community collaboration initiative with Bengaluru City Police for the protection of women in distress through free counselling, intervention programs and police assistance.

Tara Women’s Centre is a residential rehab initiative in Indiranagar, Bengaluru, which provides shelter to the survivors of domestic abuse and sexual harrasement. They also offer skill based training and job placements.

One Stop Center- SAKHI offers a wide array of services to the women affected by violence involving medical help, police assistance, legal assistance, counselling, shelter et al. These centres are established across the country in every district which are integrated with a women helpline to facilitate access to services.

Reaching Parity:

As we continue to move forward and for India to keep its position as a global growth leader, we require more efforts at both local and national levels. We especially need to see the private sector bring women and young girls to parity with men. We, of course, need to see an increasing representation of women in the public spheres as well. However, this can mostly be attained through different forms of affirmative action plans.

Equal rights for men and women were enshrined under Articles 14 to 16 in the Indian Constitution on 26 January 1950. As a democracy in 1947, Indian women received universal suffrage much before women in many other western countries were given the right to vote. Following Sri Lanka, which elected Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960, India was the second country to have a female leader, Indira Gandhi, in 1966.

Now we see women in India emerging in every sector, such as business, medicine and politics. India made history as two female scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) led our second lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, right from the beginning to end. Another milestone we enjoyed in 2020 was when the Supreme Court turned around the government’s position on women serving as army commanders.

We require an attitudinal shift so that women are considered equal within their own homes and in the broader societies. It is so vital that we continue to educate Indian children right from a young age about the importance of gender equality. As we progress economically, we need to address both social and human development, such as women and girl child empowerment. The improvement in women gender ratio is a remarkable accomplishment, but the endeavours to provide a holistic environment for women and ensure equality must not halt here. It is undeniable that further efforts should be taken to promote the value of education and the right to literacy among women. With these numbers, the nation’s outlook will be refined in terms of development. So, let’s join hands together in maintaining the same and helping society to grow towards a better tomorrow!