"Nothing about us, without us"

Swapna Majumdar, CNS Special Correspondent
December 31, 2012, will always be a special day for Sheila Devi. It was the day the 21-year old played a pivotal role in the closure of a diagnostic centre suspected of misusing technology to eliminate girls. It was because of her participation in a decoy operation that the police was able to swoop down on the clinic located near her village in Bakshi Ka Talab block of Lucknow district in the most populous Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

In a state where census figures revealed that the number of girls between 0 to 6 years for every 1,000 boys had dropped from 916 in 2001 to 902 in 2011, the closure of the centre has meant that many girls now have the chance to be born.

Twenty years ago, sex selective abortion was recognised as a brutal manifestation of gender-based violence by the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. But girls continue to be ‘missing’ in the region despite legislations criminalising female foeticide.

India is not the only country in the region where son preference has led to a skewed child sex ratio. China and Vietnam are among the countries that traditionally favour male children  and where sex selective abortion is deepening the girl deficit.

Gender equality is still a work in progress for many countries in the Asia Pacific region, says Roberta Clark, regional director, UN Women Asia and Pacific.

Holding governments accountable to their commitments made to addressing gender inequality is one of the key aims of the Beijing+20 regional review process for Asia and the Pacific. The latest review of the progress of governments in the region in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action was held during the 2014 Asian and Pacific Conference on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: Beijing+20 Review in Thailand . At this intergovernmental meeting convened by UNESCAP and UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, countries, which also presented their national reviews, reaffirmed the need for greater efforts to ending discrimination against women and girls in the outcome document of the Conference. This document contributed to the larger global review submitted to the 56th Commission on the Status of Women meeting on Beijing+20 in March 2015.

According to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director, if countries had lived up to all those promises, a  lot more progress in equality would be seen today than the modest gains achieved in some areas.  It's time to step it up for gender equality, she said.

In Lucknow district, efforts to step up gender equality have been made through an initiative launched by Plan India. Together with Vatsalya, a Lucknow-based non government organisation working to raise awareness on sex selective abortions, they have motivated the community to value their daughters and improve the child sex ratio (CSR).

Their collective work under the Let Girls Be Born project is bringing change with the active support of the government, panchayats (local self government bodies) and communities.

Had not the first-time pregnant Sheila agreed to expose the practice after being informed how girls were being killed through sex selective abortions, the government inspection team would not have been able to close down the clinic for violating the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 2002. Under this Act, tests to determine the sex of the unborn child are illegal.

In Bakshi ka Talab block, where Shelia lives, winds of change are blowing in 20 panchayats chosen for this community intervention thanks to the advocacy initiatives of groups comprising panchayat representatives, frontline government health workers like the accredited social health activist, the auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM), and anganwadi workers  and community members.

When panchayat leaders were informed that census figures indicated Bakshi ka Talab had one of the worst CSR in Lucknow district, declining from 937 in 2001 to 910 in 2011, they agreed to help in generating awareness on the issue. They teamed up with the NGO to persuade the community to attend awareness rallies and street corner plays organised  to highlight the negative impact of sex selective elimination.

Innovative tools of engagement

In order to keep the community motivated in addressing the declining CSR, various gender tools were developed by Vatsalya. A comprehensive pictorial flipbook, conceptualised and designed by Vatsalya in collaboration with Plan India, on the falling CSR and its impact has proven so useful that besides being used in the intervention block in district Lucknow and other districts in Uttar Pradesh, it has been adopted by the Uttarakhand and the Rajasthan state governments.

Further, innovative and interesting interactive games using beads, cards or boards have been used successfully to throw light on traditional cultural practices perpetuating gender discrimination. Interesting magic and radio shows have been used to questions myths related to conception, determinants of an unborn child’s gender and disseminate information on good practices to be followed on the birth of newborns to ensure their survival.

Celebrating the birth of girls with the active support of panchayat leaders has been another strategy that has worked to make social customs more inclusive. In fact, the practice of beating the drum or a metal plate and distributing sweets in the community at the birth of girls has spread to several villages. In village Chanvatara, when Seema’s third daughter was born, neighbours were surprised to see her family celebrating with the same fanfare as is traditionally done on the birth of a male child. The participation of panchayat leaders at the function and felicitating the parents of newborn girl by presenting them congratulatory letters, has given it a stamp of community approval.

Panchayat leaders and community support groups are helping to mobilize families to participate in celebration of days earmarked for girls and creating an enabling environment to promote rights of the girl child.

Why still waiting for gender equality

While such interventions are making a difference, much more needs to be done. According to Mlambo-Ngcuka, if world leaders really saw the Beijing Platform for Action as an investment in their countries’ future, why didn’t they follow through and why were women still waiting for equality?

How will countries respond? When the world’s leaders meet at the United Nations in New York in September, will it be just promises again?  Will they re-commit to the goals of Beijing and use the opportunity as a big stepping stone to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, especially sex selective abortion?

Swapna Majumdar, Citizen News Service - CNS 
22 May 2015

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