India’s struggle to treat girls as equals

A parental preference for boys still leads to mass abortion and other sex-selection methods. India is trying new ways to shift norms but it can learn from one success story.

Girls perform yoga on their scooters at a park on International Yoga Day in Ahmedabad, India, June 21.

Based on the world norm for the ratio of females to males in a society, India is missing more than 30 million women. That is the estimated toll over decades from parents who used medical means to select the sex of their child – in favor of boys. Despite laws that prohibit such sex selection – either by abortion or during in vitro fertilization – parents in India still seek the procedures to avoid bearing girls. (See related story, here.) The threat of prosecution has not been enough to change long-held cultural norms.

Attitudes about girls in India are rooted in social traditions expressed as economic choices. Sons usually stay closer to their parents and care for them in old age. Daughters traditionally move to a husband’s family; in addition, their parents are expected to pay large dowries. These preferences come at a national cost. Only about a third of married women work in the formal economy. If India had gender parity in the workplace, according to a McKinsey & Co. study, it would gain nearly $3 trillion in income over 10 years.

For years, the government has tried to improve attitudes toward girls and to tap their potential. “We need to prioritize girls’ education, treat their rights on par with those of boys, provide them with skills and livelihood opportunities, and engage with boys and men to address patriarchal mindsets,” said Ayushmann Khurrana, an actor appointed as UNICEF’s advocate for ending violence against children, last year. “One family at a time, we will change how we value girls and respect them.”

Several measures are moving in that direction. Parliament is considering a bill that would raise the legal marriage age from 18 to 21 in recognition of the need to enable girls to pursue a full education. A nationwide campaign is attempting to ensure that girls return to school as the pandemic ends. And activist groups are trying to reverse bans on giving cellphones to older girls, which deprives them of a tool to join the workforce.

One trend that seems to be having a notable effect, according to a United Nations study, is the inclusion of more women in leadership roles at the village level.

A Pew survey in March shows that progress is being made. It found most Indians agree that “women and men make equally good political leaders.” Some 62% of adults say that men and women should share the duties of raising children. When it comes to the composition of families, 94% said it was important to have at least one son and 90% said it was also important to have at least one daughter. Some 64% agreed that sons and daughters should have equal rights to inheritance.

India can also take inspiration from another country – South Korea – that once had a worrisome sex-selection issue and made great strides to overcome its gender disparities.

By 2020, South Korean girls were enrolled in education at a greater rate than boys. Between 1990 and 2019, labor force participation by women rose from 49% to 60%. Those gains have resulted in lower marriage and fertility rates and a broader recognition of women’s worth. By 2007, the World Bank proclaimed South Korea as the “first Asian country to reverse the trend in rising sex ratios at birth.”

Despite its own cultural norms toward girls reaching back generations, South Korea has shown that a growing recognition of the inherent worth of every child can lead to a more equitable society – and a choice for boys and girls to discover their individuality.

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