By Richa Singh
The birth of a son in Haryana, a state in northern India, is celebrated by beating a thali, a steel plate. While a son is honored, a daughter’s birth is frowned upon. The birth of a son is a matter of prestige, proudly announced to the whole community. Neem branches are hung and sweets are distributed. All traditional rituals are performed, accompanied by a huge celebration. If a girl is born, however, only the most basic rituals are performed. In fact, if a family is “blessed” with two or more girls, their birth is actually mourned. Social norms are s t r e n g t h e n e d by these rituals. Girls are regularly named Bhateri or Ram Bhateri, which means “the last one” or “the end.”
Haryana is known for having a low “sex ratio” and a lower child sex ratio. Sex ratio is the number of females per 1000 males. According to the 2011 census (the last year for which statistics are available), the sex ratio in Haryana was 879 girl children born for every 1000 boys. A low sex ratio reflects the value given girls and women in the society. In a patriarchal society, women are viewed as a burden, devalued. What results is both discrimination and violence against women.
Breakthrough—a human rights organization that works to make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable— began work on gender-biased sex selection in Haryana in 2012, the year after the Indian government released its census data. It showed female sex ratio numbers across India were highly skewed. Traveling to villages and interacting with people in the communities, it became clear to Breakthrough staff that they would have to address the community’s preference for sons by focusing on a mindset that devalues girls and women.
Breakthrough’s baseline study in Jhajjar and Sonepat, districts in Haryana with sex ratios lower than the national average, revealed that community members have very low regard for the basic rights of women. Further, women internalized their subordinate status. For example, while most women know they have the right to own property, they do not exercise that right because of the social stigma attached to doing so. Women are also denied the right to education, work, mobility, and reproductive rights. To compound matters, a woman’s status within her own family decreases if she gives birth to daughters. Their conclusion? Gender-biased sex selection could not be addressed without addressing the structural discrimination that women face.
Sanjay Kumar, a Breakthrough staff member who manages gender-biased sex selection and gender-based discrimination, led the change in his village to break the long standing genderbiased tradition of beating the thali only if a son is born. His first act was announcing the birth of his daughter by beating the thali. He organized a celebration of his daughter ’s birth where he eng a g e d wi t h other community members, encouraging them to let go of their gender bias. However, it was not an easy path for Sanjay. When he asked his mother to organize a singing celebration, his mother recoiled. “This is only done if a boy child is born,” she said, explaining her decision not to participate. When the celebration happened, Sanjay realized there were no songs for girls; all songs had been written for boys. He faced resistance at each step, whether he hung neem branches or sang songs.
Sanjay remained firm in his belief that he had to lead the way by setting an example and it had to begin at home. He believes that change is happening and his belief stems from what he has been noticing around him in his community. Breakthrough successfully replicated Sanjay’s action in a campaign celebrating the birth of girl children. They ran it across four areas Breakthrough works in.
Changing norms is the first step in intervening against a patriarchal mindset. Breakthrough’s work focuses on bringing about normative change by countering the traditional norms— standards that perpetuate gender discrimination and restrict opportunities for girls and women. Their strategy includes engaging men as partners in bringing about change, both in families and in communities. For Breakthrough, Sanjay’s story is a reminder to always strive for the change we want.
Breakthrough writer Richa Singh describes her work as being at the confluence of feminism, writing and research. To see a short video of Sanjay Kumar’s celebration of the birth of a daughter go to http://bit.ly/2jZzysC.