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Changing attitudes towards girls in India

Indians are realising the long-term health of their nation is at risk because of the decreasing number of girls.

Early results from the 2011 census show the number of girls under the age of six has declined for the fifth consecutive decade. In 2011, India recorded 914 young girls to every 1,000 boys, compared to 927 a decade ago. This growing imbalance between the sexes reflects the widespread practice of female foeticide, where female babies are aborted by couples in preference for male children. Men are considered to be the breadwinners and carriers of the family name in many traditional Indian societies. Whereas girls are viewed as a financial burden, particularly because of the dowries required for when they get married.

Now, the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is aiming to address the bias against girls. State authorities have decided to make the practice of giving a dowry illegal, since this financial burden is seen as a key reason why parents choose to abort a female child. A large amount of money is normally paid to a bride’s family in India and Madhya Pradesh wants to stamp out this tradition. The authorities are therefore encouraging local communities to shun families who demand a dowry payment for their daughters.

The central Indian state has also launched a “Save the daughter” campaign, designed to encourage families to have girls. In support of this campaign, key local government initiatives have been adopted, such as reserving half of all teaching positions for women and providing pensions to parents with no sons. In addition, the state wants families to adopt female children from orphanages and intends to roll out other pro-girl programmes in the future.

India is also trying to change other traditional practices which adversely affect the welfare of girls, such as the large number of child marriages which still take place. India has some of the highest levels of under-age marriage globally and due to the size of the population, the country accounts for around 40 per cent of the world’s child marriages.

Under-age marriages are illegal in India, punishable with a fine of over 1,000 pounds and two years in prison for those who perform the service or those who fail to prevent a child wedding from taking place. However, the law is ignored. The BBC recently highlighted the general acceptance of child marriages in a special radio programme called ‘The Truth about Child Brides’. Currently, entire Indian communities attend the wedding ceremonies of children and no-one informs the police. As well as increased risks to a girl’s health from early pregnancy, women married before the age of 18 are twice as likely to suffer acts of domestic violence than those married at an older age (according to a study conducted in India by the International Centre for Research on Women). However, as with female foeticide, it may take many generations before attitudes towards marrying girls at a young age can be changed.

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