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Celebrating the 'daughters' of Thar

May 09, 2012

In an age where more and more women are breaking new ground; the treatment of the girl child and the lopsided girl to boy ratios make for a sorry state of affairs. To get more focus on this in the state of Rajasthan, where ratios are most appalling; the Pre conception and Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Cell came up with an innovative way to celebrate the girl child.

Barmer: Who celebrates the birth of a girl child? In India, where all blessings traditionally begin with 'Doodho nahao, pooton phalon (May you bathe in milk and be blessed with sons)', it is no surprise that the birth of a girl child is not really seen as an occasion to rejoice. Right from sounding the 'kansi ki thali' to the Suraj poojan to a feast and the 'jamna' (gifts and offerings for the newborn and the family sent from maternal parents), all the rituals have been traditionally custom-designed to welcome the birth of boys in the family. 

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More so in a state like Rajasthan, where some of its western districts have the infamous ritual of breaking mud pots when daughter are born. These girls grow up in an environment of discrimination, without proper health care or education. And since this prejudice is part of the social norms and cultural practices, it is easily transferred from one generation to the other, perpetuating a lifetime of injustice.

There are even tales of Bhati Rajput families drowning the newborn girls in water mixed with milk or killing them with an overdose of opium. So the grave is the destination for this region’s missing girls. In 2010, when Panna Singh's daughter, Shagun Kanwar, got married the otherwise normal ritual of the arrival of a 'baarat' (marriage procession) in their Deora village, situated on the Barmer-Jaislamer border, created headlines. It was only the second time in 12 years that the family had welcomed a 'baarat'. The first time was in 1998 when Shagun's cousin, Jayant Kanwar, had got married.

In such a hostile terrain, however, the arrival of baby girls did not remain an unsung event this year. The occasion was 'Kanya Dhoond Mahotsava' organised by the Pre conception and Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Cell, a state department set-up to execute the provisions of the PCPNDT ACT, in association with the health department and the Barmer district administration.

In Rajasthan, traditionally the Dhoond (the local name for a demonic figure from whose evil eyes the child is protected by worshipping the Holi fire) is an event to mark the arrival of a baby boy. But, in a departure from the local custom, in March 2012 close to 150 mothers attended the colourful 'Kanya Dhoond Mahotsava' at Barmer's Zila Swasthya Bhawan along with their newborn daughters. As the festive folk melodies wafted through the air, it was a moment of joy and pride for these women when their girls were garlanded and gifted toys and new clothes.

Looking for ways to create awareness on the declining sex ratio in the district, the PCPNDT Cell hit on this novel idea last year. Rather than organising routine seminars where discussions are limited to experts who deliberate on the critical need to save the girl child, the border district opted to reach out to ordinary people by asking families to be part of a 'mahotsava' to celebrate the birth of a girl child. Said Vikram Singh Champawat, the district coordinator of the PCPNDT Cell, "Girls are assigned an inferior status in our society and that is why most of the rituals are meant to celebrate the arrival of boys only. We, therefore, decided to make a new beginning by holding the Dhoond function for the girl child."

Added Dr Azmal Hussain, Chief Medical and Health Officer (CMHO), Barmer, "The main objective of organsing such a festival was to stop discrimination against the girl child and help improve the declining sex ratio of our district."

To drive home the need to balance gender disparity in society, posters with messages like, 'If the sex ratio continues to decline by the present rate, where would you get brides?', 'Fifty years on there will be just one girl to seven boys' and 'Save the Girl Child and Stop Sex Selection' were put up at the function venue, even as district collector Dr Veena Pradhan argued that if girls were given the opportunities, they would achieve as much or even more than boys. "Main bhi beti hoon aur aaj Collector hoon (even I am a daughter and today I have become Collector)," she told the audience.

Before organising the Kanya Dhoond Mahotsava, the PCPNDT Cell, too, made extensive preparations. "We publicised the event in local dailies and involved anganwadi and health workers to identify baby girls less than one year old this Holi and invited them to attend the Mahotsava," Champawat said.

While it didn't have enough resources to promote and pull off such a large-scale event on its own, Cairn India lent support that ensured that each baby was gifted with new clothes and toys. The British Exploration company, Cairn Energy has the largest oil exploration fields in Barmer. "I think with collective effort the event turned out to be an effective way to convey the provisions of the PCPNDT Act. The maiden initiative was also well applauded at the coordinators' All Rajasthan meeting at the state capital, Jaipur," he added.

While the Dhoond celebration may be a symbolic gesture on the part of the government, it's a positive beginning nonetheless. Simple hard facts on the missing girls in the region cannot be ignored any longer. As per the latest statistics, Barmer has the sex ratio of 899 females per 1000 males. It is, besides, one of the country's 250 most backward districts (out of a total of 640) and has to do a lot on the literacy front as well - the average literacy rate currently is 57.49 per cent compared to 58.99 per cent in 2001. The female literacy figures have seen a sharper decline – it has come down from 43.45 per cent to a miserable 41.03 per cent, according to the latest Census.

The Barmer situation mirrors that of the rest of the state. At 883 females per 1000 males Rajasthan is among the states with lowest child sex ratio in India, well below the national average of 914. The overall sex ratio at 926 is no heartening news at all as it is below the national average figure of 940 per 1000 males.

Apart from the Women and Child Department of Barmer and other government bodies, some non-governmental organisations are also working for the advocacy of the PCPNDT Act. For instance, Vikalp Sansthan has been working in the rural areas to encourage people to celebrate the birth of girl child by performing rituals like sounding the 'kansi ki thali', 'badhai', 'namkaran sanskar' meant earlier only for boys. Just last year, the NGO also felicitated nearly 40 newborn girls and their mothers at a Balika Mahotsava.

Barmer's district administration wants to make the Dhoond Mahotasava an annual tradition. Will its echoes be heard all over the state and, particularly, in neighbouring district of Jaisalmer that has an even lower sex ratio of 849 per 1000 males? Only time will tell whether there's hope for a better future for the daughters of Thar and, eventually, for all the girls of Rajasthan. 

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