Make women the heart of progress to smash patriarchy

Create a new vocabulary to speak to girls and boys about health, especially women's health and sexuality — shatter gender stereotypes.

 |  5-minute read |   08-03-2017
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Last week, the release of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) IV India factsheet was proof of the progress of the girls and women in our country.

The numbers testified that more girls are staying in school, more women are accessing family planning services, and more women are participating in decision-making in their homes and communities.

A prima facie comparison of data revealed that child marriage has decreased to 26.8 per cent from 47.4 per cent, as recorded in NFHS III.

In the past ten years, the participation of women in household decisions has also gone up to 84 per cent against 76.5 per cent, and spousal violence, is down to 28.8 per cent from 37.2 per cent - this should give us cause to celebrate Women's Day.

While the numbers are significant, encouraging and should further the movement to empower women, because, even today, the journey of the girl child in India is a most contentious one.

sex-education_030717105546.jpg According to an IIPS and Population Council study, 40 per cent married girls declared that their last pregnancy was unwanted. Photo: Reuters

For the majority the norm is a show reel of struggles fraught with social norms that are discriminatory, with disastrous results over a protracted period of time.

Girls are born into a vicious, systemic cycle of oppression, which is handed down to one generation after the other. The prejudice begins even before the child is born, a gross bias for the male child but also normalises an aversion to the female child.

The dismal sex ratio in our country (the sex ratio at birth for children born in the last five years is 919 girls for every 1,000 boys) has made necessary a legal precedent like the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, which was enacted to criminalise sex-selective abortions.

Girl children are caught in the crossfire of patriarchal norms that are interpreted to believe that only a male heir can carry on the legacy of a family, light a funeral pyre, or take care of parents in their old age.

However, no scripture or holy book makes these demands, and girls have, in the past, challenged these constructs in practice too.

Through experience and by example, girls are conditioned to limit their expectations as they navigate a course that is ridden with challenges.

Lack of proper education, healthcare, nutrition, and any opportunity that may level the playing field is conspicuous not only in qualitative, but also quantitative data.

Take the percentage of women with 10 or more years of schooling, which is still averaging at 35.7 per cent or the 68.8 per cent of girls older than six years who have attended school, which is more than the 58.3 per cent recorded by NFHS III, but still low considering 10 years have lapsed in the interim.

Add to this practices like child marriage, physical and sexual abuse, and oppression that breed fear and apathy, which will lead women to lose their voice, agency and fundamental rights.

This complex damage is inherited by the generation that follows, not only by our girls but also our boys who feel entitled and privileged.

The false morals and archaic social constructs imbibed from parents and gatekeepers imprison millions of young girls and boys.

But the intervention for change has begun; it has been more than a few decades since civil society organisations and the feminist movement initiated independent efforts to breach the wall of inhibition.

Though the effort was scattered, it was the beginning of a conversation, a revolution, which has continued relentlessly and passionately.

This conversation is increasingly important as the age of adolescence is upon us.

In India, we have a sizable adolescent demographic with 19.2 per cent youth and 21 per cent adolescents as per the 2011 Census.

International Institute for Population Sciences and Population Council, in a study addressing the contraceptive needs of older adolescents (15 to 19 years), found that 26 per cent of unmarried boys reported being in a romantic relationship with a member of the opposite sex, as did 16 per cent of unmarried girls.

The fertility pattern among married girls in this age group was also revealing: 56 per cent became pregnant at least once and 40 per cent declared that their last pregnancy was unwanted.

These factors can help us understand and improve the quality of transition, from adolescence to adulthood and beyond.

As drastic physiological and psychological changes occur, adolescents need the information that will address their burning questions on sexual health and sexuality, someone who will prepare them for these changes, and give them the confidence to challenge social norms.

The success of edutainment shows like Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon on Doordarshan has been to use the method of positive deviance intervention, an experiment that has been successful in countries like South Africa and America.

The second season of MKBKSH was written for adolescents, which introduced the concept of a saathiya or companion.

The term lent itself to the Saathiya Kit that will now enable peer-educators, including Saathiya Salah, a mobile application, which was jointly launched by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, UNFPA, and Population Foundation of India.

Adolescents can be catalysed to become agents of change, if harnessed correctly. Along with increasing awareness, changing mindsets and attitudes, organisations working with them are changing the language and the discourse.

They are creating a new vocabulary to speak to girls and boys about health, especially women's health, sexuality, shattering gender stereotypes — and giving them the confidence to own their agency.

On the occasion of International Women's Day, let's place girls and women in the centre and pledge to rally all voices — NGOs, CSOs, policymakers, the agents of change — and unite in the revolution against patriarchy and its crippling social constructs; use our collective strength to bring down the wall.

We will need to be louder, so that boys and young men can hear us too and truly believe that girls and women can achieve anything.

And we must invite men to join the movement, make them allies of family planning, sexual and reproductive health and women's empowerment.


Poonam Muttreja Poonam Muttreja @letstransform

The author is Executive Director, Population Foundation of India. She also serves as a member of the FP2020 Reference Group - a global initiative to develop a new global architecture for increasing access to voluntary family planning services.

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