BEED: Ranjana Hurkude was 21 when she got married to Jyotiram. Her husband and she had met in 2001 and it was their common interest in working towards bringing about a social transformation at the grassroots through education that brought them closer. Not only did the couple set an example in their community by overcoming the staunch caste divide to tie the knot – while Jyotiram is a Maratha, Ranjana is a Koshti – with Jyotiram’s support Ranjana has emerged as a champion for the girl child.

This newly-elected Sarpanch of Shivni village in Beed district of Maharashtra is a strong force against the regressive – and rampant – practice of gender biased sex selection in the region. “This issue is very personal for me because I, too, have faced the pressure to get an ultrasound to find out the sex of my unborn child. During my second pregnancy in 2013 my mother-in-law was insistent that I go in for the test because I already had one daughter. When I refused she was very unhappy and I had to face constant harassment. I would not get to eat or rest in peace and was harangued in front of visitors at home or at family gatherings. However, I had the backing of my husband and eventually he took the decision to move out and live separately.”

Of course, Hurkude’s commitment to the cause of saving baby girls is not confined to her family alone. Today, as the head of the panchayat – she was elected in January 2015 – she is judiciously exercising her power to take the necessary steps to prevent the occurrence of gender biased sex selection in the area. “Through the Village Health Sanitation and Nutrition Committee (VHSNC), which I head, we spread awareness, educate women and the elders, and set some ground rules for the care and protection of pregnant women as well as young mothers and children. Even earlier, I used to engage with the community on this issue at the gram sabha meetings and be part of street plays held in the village around the issue. Being associated with the Dalit Mahila Vikas Mahamandal (DMVM), an organisation that has been actively helping the panchayat and government health workers understand the urgency of dealing with the ‘crime’ of sex selection, has enabled me to make a real difference,” she adds.

Undoubtedly, lawyer-activist Varsha Deshpande’s DMVM has been at the forefront of tackling the very serious problem of skewed Child Sex Ratio (CSR) in Beed district – it was an alarming 807 per 1000 boys at the time of Census 2011, a sharp decline from 939 registered in 1991. “Something drastic had to be done - and quickly. In a patriarchal society like ours a daughter is essentially a financial liability. Parents feel that apart from bearing the burden of paying a hefty dowry they also lose out on an able farm hand. So they see no reason to bring a girl child into this world. It’s a combination of such regressive mindset and the poor implementation of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act that has led to this deteriorated scenario,” points out Deshpande.

Ever since 2007, she has been persistently following this matter and has devised a two-pronged strategy to achieve a breakthrough. Whereas on the one hand she has led several sting operations against medical practitioners who illegally perform sonograms for detecting the sex of the foetus, on the other, the DMVM’s Lek Ladki Abhiyaan directly engages with the people to bring about a change in attitude. In fact, Deshpande’s community outreach efforts have received an added boost after the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) joined hands with them in 2014 to specifically involve and build capacities of local self government representatives and frontline health workers through the VHSNCs.

“One of the key reasons for the missing girl children was the ease with which sex determination tests and facilities for sex selection used to be available around here. One could get a sonogram for as little as Rs 500 and terminate the pregnancy by shelling out Rs 2,000. So initially we decided to conduct sting operations against diagnostic centres and maternity homes conducting sex determination tests. The idea was to create the fear of the law. At the same time, I strongly believe that we have to hack at the roots of this problem by creating enough social pressure. The UNFPA’s support has enabled us to sensitise locals as well as health workers so that they can offer the right support to a pregnant woman and ensure that no one terminates a pregnancy just based on the sex of the unborn child,” elaborates the woman who has been behind 49 sting operations which have resulted in no less than 18 convictions.

According to Anuja Gulati, State Programme Coordinator, UNFPA-Maharashtra, “We believe that building capacities of grassroots functionaries is an important strategy to address the issue of declining CSR. In Beed, we contributed to training of 12,000 VHNSC members on issues of gender rights, sex selection and the PCPNDT Act, so that they could integrate these concerns in the village health and development plans. The VHNSC members exercise a certain influence with the community and can help trigger a change in social norms related to son preference and value of the girl child.”

Like Hurkude, Manda Deshmane, the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) for Dindrud village in Majalgaon block, is glad that she has the perspective and opportunity to fight for girls and women. “Discussions and sharing of experiences and ideas was as informative as the training manuals used to explain the law to us during the training process. We also learnt how to counsel young women and their families to raise the value of girls. I tell everyone that instead of commiserating with a woman for having a girl if we just boost her confidence with a box of sweets or a frock for the newborn, we can begin a positive trend.” She makes it a point to carry around photocopies of the training material that the UNFPA and DMVM have provided to strike up conversations and influence people.

In Shirur Kasar, the worst faring block in Beed – the CSR here was a dismal 779 (Census 2011) – Shakuntala Thombre, a former nurse with the Primary Health Centre, watched a generation of girls go missing and was, by her own admission, “a powerless bystander”. She shares, “For the longest time I did try to do things on my own but to no avail. For example, I used to go to social occasions like haldi-kumkum during marriages and along with giving a gift to the woman I gave a small card that talked of the ills of discriminating against the girl child. But what had a real impact were the DMVM stings and the more focused approach taken by the VHNSCs.”

Indeed, in January 2015, empowered VHNSCs across the district formalised their pledge to effect true change at special gram sabhas organised to discuss issues related to improving the status of girls and women. A resolution to “welcome the birth of a girl child and facilitate couples and families who refused dowry and said no to sex selection” was adopted.

That these various measures have started to show the desired results is now being reflected in lived realities. One only has to meet with Rahman Gaffur Sheikh, a panwallah in a nondescript hamlet in Shirur Kasar block, to know that the future is hopeful. In December 2015, Sheikh welcomed the birth of four granddaughters by firing shots in the air and distributing sweets in the neighbourhood. “Though there were some who found my reactions odd others were happy for me. It’s all a matter of thinking. Girls are not just burdens; they bring infinite joy to the family,” he remarks.

Concludes Deshpande, “It’s heartening to see the positive responses. But this is just the beginning of our struggle for a gender-friendly life.”

( Women's Feature Service)