Photo shows People in Bihar celebrating Chhath Festival, during which mothers-in-law and eldest daughters-in-law eat nothing and drink nothing (not even water) for 3 days. The photo shows men carrying food which has been blessed by the river, and which women will now cook for them and for any women who are not fasting.
Cathy Ratcliff blogs on the current crisis facing women and girls in India.
I’ve travelled a lot for my work in aid, but never have I seen such a crisis of violence against women and girls as I’ve seen this year in north India.
In February I visited Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. In MP I visited villages where girls are married from the age of 12, and early pregnancy is common. Of course, this isn’t unusual around the world. What shocked me, though, was the sheer lack of love surrounding these girls. After marriage, they have to leave their parents to go and live in a different village with their parents-in-law; for several years after moving there they have to cover their face with a cloth every time they lave the house or every time a male visitor comes to their house; everyone told me that their new families mistreat them; many high caste health workers refuse to touch or even visit a low caste young mother; and firmly held myths surround birth, resulting in harmful practices which allow only the strongest mothers and babies to survive. In one village they told me the girls had to cover their faces outside their home for the first 10 years of marriage, and the nearby hospital said that when they recruited women healthcare volunteers, it was only on the third or fourth meeting in the hospital that all women agreed to show their faces. While I was told that covering your face is a way of showing respect, it seems to me that respect is missing towards these women and girls, and that rural north Indian women’s lives seem to be governed by fear and lack of self-worth.
Most of us know that many Indian families prefer to have boys rather than girls. But again, the scale of this shocks me. The hospital that I’m working with in Bihar, Duncan Hospital, conducted a survey which showed that by the age of 2 years, 10% of girls in their rural catchment area are missing, and in one area, 20% of under-two girls are missing. Sex-selective abortions, female infanticide and neglect are all used to bring this about: several times more boys than girls are brought to the hospital for treatment. Parents perceive girls as a burden because parents generally pay a dowry when their daughter marries, but in fact dowries are illegal in India, and girls shouldn’t need one anyway, as they have equal rights with their brothers to inherit and own land. But knowledge of the law is scant, and so harmful culture prevails.
The situation of girls and women in India is a crisis. Imagine if this was an ethnic group being treated in this way - would world leaders pay more attention? The Indian government has good, gender-neutral laws - better than Scotland’s, in fact, with regard to children’s right to inherit property - and various Indian states have tried to bring about the cultural shift needed to address this crisis. But this is such a crisis that we all need to pay attention to it. In November I returned to Bihar, and met more women who were victims of violence resulting from an unfair cultural system and from ignorance of health and healthcare.
November 25th is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Let’s keep in mind our sisters in India, who are experiencing the most severe violence. The little that I can do is through my work: from now until February, my work is accepting donations to help our gender project in Bihar, and all donations will be doubled by a concerned Scottish couple. Details are here: www.emms.org . The Sunday Herald will shortly be running a series of articles on gender in India, by Vicky Allan. Read them, inform yourselves, and think what more we can do to help.
Cathy Ratcliff is Director of International Programmes at EMMS International, Scotland’s oldest international healthcare charity.