‘Gender sensitivity is a matter of life and death... all of us are accountable’

Let me tell you about Tuba Tabassum, a stunningly beautiful girl of 14 who dreams of being a doctor, the daughter of an Anganwadi teacher, the best student in her class. Her classmate wooed her endlessly with Bollywood songs but four months ago, when Tuba continued to say no, he and his friends threw acid on her. Tuba almost lost her life, is now blind in one eye, permanently disfigured, out of school, and struggling to survive.

There is a vital need to include a gender perspective at every level of communication, to ensure long-term child survival in India. So, let's start with what we already know: In the last 10 years, the 0-6 age-group sex-ratio has fallen disturbingly in India, largely because of sex-specific abortions. Multiple states across the nation have a sex-ratio that is significantly worse than the poor national average. We know that baby girls have a much higher immunisation dropout rate than boys, that many more boys are brought into SNCUs (Sick Newborn Care Units) than girls, that boys fare much better than girls in getting breastfeeding, complementary feeding, oral rehydration, antibiotics, and eventually, education.

What happens after a girl survives infancy? She can face continuing crises that imperil her survival, development, and ability to live with dignity. We must not forget that for many children, the struggle for survival does not end at age 5 or 6, that there are dire threats beyond disease and nutrition, such as domestic violence, child marriage and child pregnancy, lack of education, child labour, incest and sexual abuse, violence driven by caste and religion, corporal punishment, extreme physical assault, and child trafficking.

This dangerous gender bias is perpetuated by communications in multiple media — by words and images, by our laws and our popular culture, by silences and inactions that speak volumes. It is communicated through TV shows that still romanticise child marriage and portray it as "cute"; through commercials that state that a dark-skinned girl will find neither a husband nor a job, and her father will wish he'd had a son instead; and through many of our popular films, which still objectify women and glorify eve-teasing heroes who stalk girls until they give in, unlike Tuba Tabassum.

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