24 - 06 - 2018

Beta padhao, beti bachao

It is not enough to save a girl at birth and educate her. To make use of her education and to reach her full potential, she will have to leave home. It should be safe for her to do so. This is not possible without teaching boys decent social behaviour.

Every third Saturday for the past few months, I visit some village school and interact with adolescent girls. It is a state initiative to inspire the girl child. Apart from the usual "doctor talk" about puberty and menstrual hygiene, I ask the girls to break barriers, to dream and persevere to realise those dreams. I tell them about the importance of economic independence and personal space. I urge them to shun the patriarchal ideology that home is a woman's only domain and marriage and child bearing her ultimate destiny. I return with a spring in my step, feeling that in a small way, I have empowered womenkind. 

The recent “stalking” case  in Chandigarh, a city that symbolises liberal India, has forced me to think otherwise. Sexual abuse, almost a national trait, is rampant in different forms. Incidents of molestation are by themselves sordid but the aftermath is more revolting. The media adds insult to injury by reporting these cases in a thoughtless and melodramatic way. It isn't concern for women and their safety which bothers us as a society, but the belief that we have been shamed and humiliated. That is why the typical response of the people in power is to blame the victim. It is their horrendous analogies and statements condoning these misdeeds which hurts the most.

Herein lies my dilemma. It is hard to believe that we will save a girl child, educate her, instil confidence in her, make her believe in gender equality, coax her to become self reliant, widen her horizons and yet expect her to conduct herself  according to the distorted picture of a  Bhartiya naari. I might be doing a great disservice by telling the girls to be ambitious and assert their place in society. They might be better off as the meek women they are destined to become, who don't make eye contact while conversing, that is, if they speak at all. Perhaps it would do them more good if they were advised to change their lifestyle to accommodate  wayward men. If they were told to be cautious because even in a crowd, they are fundamentally alone.

Though this outreach programme involving local women professionals as role models is a great idea I don't think it will have the desired results. It won't work till someone teaches adolescent boys to respect independent women. Boys have to be told that they have no special privileges due to sheer accident of birth. They have no right over women's bodies. Manhood is not only about brute force and bravado, it is also about sensitivity and empathy. They have to be taught to accept "no" for an answer. It has to be reiterated that no matter what she is wearing or doing, till a woman asks for it, she is not asking for it !

But perhaps, even before that we need to educate our leaders. They have to be taught that ill-thought misogynistic remarks have no place in  modern society. The insinuation that  women wearing western clothes, partying late at night invite sexual harassment encourages misguided youth to "teach them a lesson." Propagating this mindset that the burden of social order lies with women allows men to abuse women in full public view, without fear of repercussion. Apart from this, we need to throw out our ill-conceived notions of righteousness. As a society we shy away from acknowledging sexuality and from sex education in homes and schools. We discourage healthy social interaction between adolescent boys and girls. This repression results in bluster and desperation to seek female attention. Ogling, cat calls, eve- teasing, groping, molestation, and rape are manifestations of this deprivation. If boys were allowed to grow up with girls, they would know them better. They would empathise with their struggles with social prejudices, their constant effort to stay safe. Instead of predators they would become their natural allies. Till that happens fear has to be created in the perpetrators of this crime, they have to be scared of the consequences. It would serve the country better if leaders focus their energy on this rather than giving sexist sound bytes to the media.

Although the Indian Constitution has granted women equal rights, they remain, at best,  second-class citizens. Educating girls will bring  awareness and the courage to question patriarchal mores. They will aspire for a risk-free participation in the discourse of life. Till we have an administrative ethos that asserts a woman's right to bodily integrity no matter where she is and what she is doing, legislation cannot provide her that safe haven.

The path of female empowerment is full of potholes. We have come a long way but have to go much further. It is not enough to save a girl at birth and educate her. To be able to make use of her education and reach her full potential she will have to leave home. It should be safe for her to do so. This is not possible without teaching boys decent social behaviour. Till we have gender- sensitised men, the girl child will remain an endangered species and the  practice to eliminate her before birth or soon after will continue. "Beta padhao" is a pre-requisite for  "beti bachao, beti padhao".


Manju Gupta…The writer, a gynaecologist, is a freelance journalist