New Delhi: Imagine a world without women. It’s impossible, isn’t it? Then why is it that as a society we’d rather welcome the birth of a son than a daughter? And if there is a choice, we’d pick a boy over a girl?

India is in the midst of a serious crisis - for every 1000 boys there are just 918 girls in this country, a number that has not just been falling consistently but is, at present, the lowest since Independence. Alarmed yet? The issue of declining child sex ratio (CSR) that till now had only seemed to worry demographers, rights activists, health experts and sociologists, is now permeating the public sphere and inspiring critical reflection by individuals from different walks of life. Views shared by a cross-section of people, from domestic workers to students and office-goers, who participated in the discussions initiated by Girls Count, a civil society coalition that includes organisations such as Action Aid, Action India, and Grassroots Support Foundation among others, makes it quite apparent. These discussions and dialogues were part of the awareness campaign mounted by this coalition at 10 crowded Metro stations in Delhi in December 2014 to engage with commuters on the issue of enhancing value of daughters and making Girls Count.

Bimla Devi (name changed), a domestic worker in west Delhi, loves her three girls but constantly worries about their future. The middle-aged woman, who lost her husband a few years back, spends sleepless nights thinking about how she would gather enough money to marry them off. Sometimes she really wishes she’d had a boy although that does not mean that she is okay with gender biased sex selection, “I can’t say that having a girl is a bad thing. I have three and they chip in with me to do household chores as well as help me at work. But can you imagine the burden I have to bear as their parent. I have to worry about their safety, their dowries…”

Remarks Amit Singh, a PhD student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, “In Indian society there is a general belief that men can earn and support the family while women can only do household work. But this mindset has to change, as both sexes have equal and significant roles to play. Building awareness to this end is the only way we can motivate people to value girls and say NO to sex selection.”

Clearly, there is a diversity of opinions when it comes to the issue of the son preference and discrimination against girls. However, what is evident is that people are open to discussing it and are beginning to challenge established norms. “It is this dialogue that we hope to channelise through the Girls Count campaign to bring lasting change,” says Manak Matiyani, 28, one of the drivers of this movement. Girls Count is a coalition of nearly 200 civil society organisations committed to addressing the factors that are contributing to declining CSR in India. It recognises that apart from effective implementation of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994 that prohibits sex selection, it is critical that initiatives ensuring women’s safety, mobility and equal opportunities through skill development are rolled out for the overall social and economic empowerment of women and girls. The coalition is supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the National Foundation for India (NFI).

According to Toshihiro Tanaka, Deputy Representative, UNFPA, “Son preference and sex selection are an offshoot of a patriarchal society. Gender inequality has been a reality in most parts of the world. The difference is in the degree and nature of inequality experienced by women and girls. We need to work towards a scenario where women and men enjoy equal rights, and where women have an equal share in decision making.”

India’s child sex ratio has been on the decline. From 927 girls per 1000 boys, in 2001 the count has dropped to 918 as per the 2011 Census. While the normal child sex ratio should be above 950, in certain parts of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi, there are less than 850 girls for every 1000 boys.

In fact, as per some estimates, sex selection resulted in the loss of approximately 5.7 lakh girls annually between 2001 and 2008, which means around 45 lakh girls went missing over this period. Ever since Sonali Shah, a law student, learnt this from the Girls Count kiosk at the metro station in Delhi University, she can’t seem to get over the injustice of it. She says, “These are not merely numbers; these are girls who never got a chance to experience life.”

According to Rizwan Pervez, Coordinator, Girls Count coalition, their interactions with “real people who can make a real difference” give a reason to hope. “From the Metro staff, security personnel and cleaners to the commuters, everyone enthusiastically shared their thoughts. They wore badges bearing messages on gender equality and took pamphlets to show at home. Though most agreed that gender discrimination is not good they didn’t know how to stop sex selection because ‘this is a family issue’. We told them that they could make a difference by congratulating friends and relatives on the birth of a girl, instead of passing taunts or sympathising, discouraging relatives or family members from doing sex determination tests and support the women and girls in the family and community to realise their full potential. We also need to seek accountability from the government. Through the campaign we aim to collect 10,000 signatures in support of the issue and present it to President Pranab Mukherjee as a petition to intervene in the matter and advise all states to take stringent action against violations committed under the PCPNDT Act.”

Despite the obvious challenges, there are many who are keen to do their bit to catalyse change. Be it conservancy worker Shobha Devi, 40, homemaker Sunita Sinha, 42, or IT professional Jai Verma, 34, they do not hesitate to state that their daughters are “priceless”. Says Sunita, “I have resolved to treat my son and daughter equally. When the elders in the family told me to find a better school for my son I insisted that either both will change their school or neither. Besides, I involve my son in doing household chores so that he learns to respect a woman’s work at home.”

Displaying exemplary determination Shobha has managed to keep her daughter in school despite the opposition from her husband and older sons, “I want my daughter to finish her education so that she can confidently take decisions that are right for her.” On his part, Jai, father of two daughters wants them to feel that their “gender cannot limit their horizons”. While he admits to have felt the pressure to have a son from his extended family, as far as he is concerned his “family is complete”. Standing up in support of equal rights for women is Vaibhav Arora, 20, a law student from IP University, who has pledged never to “tolerate” gender discrimination. “When I marry, I will do household chores and take care of my children. It is not the sole responsibility of the woman to be in charge of the home and family,” he says. A frequent metro traveller, communications professional Raghu Kalra has resolved that if he ever sees a girl being teased or troubled he will intervene. “No woman should have to endure violence. If all of us decide to take a stand then no parent would feel that daughters are a burden.”

Like any process of social transformation, breaking down rigid patriarchal norms and building value for girls will take time. But as long as there are people like Shobha, Sunita or Vaibhav the change being sought will soon be a reality.

(Names of some people quoted have been changed to protect their identity.)

(Women's Feature Service)