The Fourth World Conference on Women which was held in Beijing in September 1995 has been labelled as a historic occasion in the history of women’s movement. It was attended by representatives of 189 governments, UN agencies, intergovernmental organisations as well as activists and organisations from across the world. It was also here that the then First Lady of the United States of America , Hillary Rodham Clinton gave her much acclaimed speech titled “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” which has been considered as an important catalyst in the women’s rights movement.
The Beijing Platform for Action has been the most progressive blueprint for voicing women’s rights for it was this conference that charted out twelve areas of concern for women out of which “The Girl Child” was one of the Mission Statement of the conference. Keeping this in mind, the United Nations General Assembly declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child to recognise girl’s rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world.
The issue of girl’s child rights and protection is all the more relevant in our country today. Being home to 164.5 million children below the age of 14 years , India is facing one of the biggest challenges of assuring rights to the girl child Among the myriads of issues plaguing the society today are child labour , malnutrition, poverty, illiteracy, child marriage, child trafficking ,education etc. It is sad to say that although within the development context enough attention has been given on both national and international platforms to uplift the cause of the girl child, the big question still looms large before us – How best do we address the needs and interests of our young daughters who are the future of our nation?
The issue of child labour has somehow almost become a social norm that we accept and tolerate in our society. This exploitative and abusive practice often goes unnoticed since many of these children remain trapped in the intergenerational cycle of poverty and deprivation that compels them to work not only to support the family economy but also to miss their education.
According to CRY (Child Rights and You) a non-profit NGO working towards securing a happier future for underprivileged children in India, about 1.4 million child labourers in India in the age group of 7-14 years cannot write their names. This means that one in every three child labourers in the said age group is illiterate.
Closer home, IMPULSE, an NGO that has been working in addressing issues of human trafficking of women and children of North East India conducted a research on socio-economic conditions of the girl child labourers in Shillong and the extent of gender exploitation which revealed startling instances of young girls being victims of sexual abuses and trafficking. There are also cases of homelessness where the girl child becomes victim to abandonment by the family on grounds of poverty or social stigma of an unwanted girl child.
Child abandonment is a punishable act under Section 317 of the Indian Penal Code, yet studies have revealed that India is home to 31 million orphaned children out of which majority are girls. That girls have been victims of the so-called ‘unwanted child’ is an age-old adage but the psychological impact and emotional disorder it has on the girl child cannot be mended.
It is indeed commendable to see that a few organisations like the Reach Shillong Ministry (RSM) which is a Christian voluntary ministry has been working along its vision statement of transforming lives to the best through the teachings of Jesus by rescuing street children and sheltering them a children’s home very aptly named ‘Lawei Ba Phyrnai’ which means ‘A Bright and Hopeful Future’ where the children are given vocational guidance and made to feel at home.
In a bid to specially focus on the girl child, the Reach Shillong Ministries has taken up a campaign “From Anxiety to Confidence” in which the organisation provides 100 numbers of sanitary napkins to underprivileged adolescent girls on a monthly basis. One of the success stories of this organisation has been with regard to providing free education to the girl child especially the ones who are deprived from going to school only because they have to take care of their younger siblings.
This problem was curbed by permitting the girls to bring along their younger siblings to school and while they were being looked after by the ‘ayah’, the elder ones attended classes. This concerted effort of the organisation has boosted the confidence of the inmates living in the foster homes so high that very recently one of them achieved a distinction in 4 subjects in the HSSLC examination.
Turning the wheel now to the health and nutritional status of young adolescent girls, as we all know we are living in times of acute public health crisis due to the outbreak of the pandemic. Little did we realise that the Covid-19 crisis would affect women differently. In fact if we looked at the present pandemic through a gendered lens, we would have a different story to tell. Besides the economic hardships that women have faced as a result of the pandemic such as losing their daily wages and livelihood needs, many feminist scholars have also reflected upon severe impacts of the pandemic on mental wellbeing of young girls and women.
With an increase in domestic workload and slow economic recovery as compared to their male counterparts many of them have become vulnerable to various kinds of social oppression and sexual violence, which in any case always existed prior to the pandemic but has made them more susceptible owing to the mental unpreparedness and lack of resources or access required to safeguard themselves.
As reported by the Indian National Commission for Women (NCW), there has been an alarming rise in domestic violence complaints received during the period of the lockdown since it provided an opportunity for abusers to unleash unnecessary hate and violence against girls and women even within the family. Seeing the state of things it looks as though this has become more of a ‘gendered epidemic’.
It is also sad to note that there was a spurt in the number of infant and maternal deaths during the lockdown period and this has been reported from our own state. The Times of India dated August 30, 2020,in its news item reported that in Meghalaya at least 61 pregnant women and 877 newborns have died in the last four months starting from April 2020 for want of admission to hospitals and also due to lack of medical attention because of the diversion of health machinery to fight Covid 19 pandemic. The fatalities were mostly due to diseases other than the novel coronavirus. Will these health issues be curtailed at a time when the world is still trying to find a solution to stop the spread of the virus? Maternal health of young adolescent girls has been a top priority of health organisations across the globe.
A study conducted by NESFAS (North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society) revealed that the extent of child under nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies among most tribes of North East is considerably high. A small and yet meaningful effort by this organisation along with the local community has been to conduct ABD (Agro-Biodiversity ) walks for little children in the age group of 6-15 years to foster the knowledge of Indigenous Food System (IFS) and thereby understand healthy dietary diversity of our local products.
The picture in front of us is not bleak for as we could see efforts at the grassroots level are afoot wherein NGOs have worked hard to support and lift up the girl child. The future of the girl child is a future we all have to create. It all depends upon our mindset and how we gauge at the problems at hand with a neutral mind that seeks to eliminate all forms of discrimination of the girl child. Let us uphold the motto for this year’s International Day of the Girl Child – “My Voice – Our Equal Future” and celebrate the possibilities of a better world inspired by our young minds.